Paradise Lost 10: part sci-fi, part theology and real life in between

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Autumn Chrysanthemum welcome on the front step, 29 October

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.

I’m starting today at line 192,  just after Satan has encouraged Beelezebub (and himself) to  believe fighting on  is the best way forward.

Let’s read the next paragraph aloud to warm up :

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

This falls into 3 sections, and is worth separating out. First line 192-208,  I think the first section since the opening where  Milton puts in a lot of references to things/places/classical figures we might not know about.  What I do with these is  read over them as if it didn’t matter what they are or whether I know about them, trying to get the rough sense of  the verse.

Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz’d, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

What’s happening here? I’d be asking my group, give me a rough translation? It’s about how bog he is, someone may say, he’s comparing him to a whale.

It’s very visual, filmic, isn’t it? There he is – eyes sparkling, but the rest of him, ‘Prone on the Flood, extended long and large’. Those references, Titanian, Briareos, Typhon and Leviathan are all about giants or gigantic creatures.  The Dartmouth edition is really helpful, because you can easily look things up or ignore them, as you choose.

Milton moves happily from Greek mythology to contemporary seafarer chat when he speaks of Leviathan, the whale:

Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:

Is it true – have sailors ever thought a whale to be an island and  moored up on his sccaly side? Having seen some great whales off the coast of Maine a few years back I very much doubt it – they move fast. But the size is the point isn’t it? And while I am struggling to get the size of a  real life whale back into my mind ( I think the whales I saw off Bar Harbour were humpback whales –  they are big, especially when you are in a small boat, but nowhere near as big as Blue Whales, which are the largest animals on the planet).

All that is a simile, (note the ‘As’ line 197, and the linking ‘So’, line 209) to help us imagine Satan’s enormous size. Milton wants us to see it, like a play  or like pictures (or for us a film) which is interesting given that most of  what he is trying to put into our heads is  thought, isn’t it?  or if not thought, inner experience? He is trying to make real inner states, which don’t easily map to language and pictures. In another dimension, I suppose, this ‘story’ could be told as ‘theology’ and in other parts of his writing life, Milton does that. But here – he is  trying to ‘justifie the wayes of God to men’  and he goes for mighty, dramatic, unfolding narrative illustration as the way to do it.

Let’s read the second part of this paragraph:

So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d. [ 220 ]

This huge creature, ‘chained on the burning lake’ is allowed to heave up his head, to rise, by the ‘will/And high permission of all-ruling Heaven’. This is one of those moments  when I falter in my reading. God allows evil – can that be right? Yes ,according to this poem – it is given. It is all part of the whole  thing.  and the whole thing is complicated  -containing as it must – but why? – evil? I’m going to put this part in my list of  worries on my Paradise Lost page  on the top line of this blog. God allows evil in that

…with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag’d might see
How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth
Infinite goodness,

This is one of those parts where God seems small, and I don’t want to think that because I know for Milton that can never have been the case. So rather than standing over Milton and thinking I know better, I need to get myself to work at understanding what it means for him. Why enrage your enemies? Why make the evil-doer feel bad? Or does God care about, or create, that rage? Or is it something that is part of Satan and therefore Satan’s own responsibility? For man,  God offers

                                                   to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn

but for Satan there is only ‘Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance ‘.  Does God need a scapegoat?

Or am I thinking amiss?

Let me think of a human who is/was when alive, evil.

If that person never repents of what thy have done  can they ever be anything but evil or in thrall to confusion, wrath and  vengeance – say of the legal system, or the judgement of history or of their own mind. For humans in this poem, there is always a chance of  redemption. For Satan, not. Why? Because he doesn’t want it. Say there was a bad human who didn’t want redemption – wanted to only think  ‘what I did was good. I enjoyed it, and it pleased me’. Would we have to say of that person they were irredeemable?

Can I understand Satan as a principle of the irredeemable?  Certainly, that spirit seems a presence  in the human universe. We’ve seen it.  There is a responsibility at the heart of things then, to accept evil as evil. In Satan that is never (or rarely? there is a moment) accepted – he’s always blustering on about how he only just lost the battle and might have won..so his sense of what is might nearly have been proved right. If I imagine Satan not as a loser/victim but as murderer/tyrant/corrupter then the fact of his not being able to see what he has done as wrong becomes an explanation of why he  is forever damned. He is damned for being himself and for choosing to be that self. Is it a choice? Or did God make him like this? We’ll com to some of this later.

Milton is making me justify the ways of God to myself here!

On, to the next third of the paragraph:

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Now, having briefly gone inward ,to think about the psychological damage the external action is causing, Milton takes us  back out again, to see Satan, in his enormity: his will seems to break, to disappear, the chains that held him there.

Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i’th’ midst a horrid Vale.

The very flames of Hell are driven back by his movement, which clears a space. This is reminiscent of the parting of the sea in Exodus  and is an indication of Satan’s massive power. His will gives him the use of  his wings:

Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn’d
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;

But the fires of Hell are everywhere, and on dry land the fire burns as a solid. and to make this real, Milton reinds of  real earthly fire – volcanoes:

And such appear’d in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter’d side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel’d entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim’d with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv’d
With stench and smoak:

Milton is creating  a movement between inner worlds of the spirit, one’s psyche or psychology (where I have to keep asking myself ‘do you recognise this? ) and the  powerful pictures which  make connections to reality or to myth (where Milton reminds us, you know about Mount Etna? you know about Whales? It’s like that!). I’m reminded of a bit later on (Book 5)  when Raphael is visiting Adam and is about  to tell of the war in Heaven, and says he will use simile, metaphor, analogy  to make the connection between Adam’s understanding and the heavenly reality:

       what surmounts the reach
Of human sense, I shall delineate so,
By lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms,
As may express them best, though what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

I’ll come to this when we get to Book 5 (several years hence at my current speed) but for now just want to say that I do believe this is the method Milton himself is using throughout the whole poem – telling us things via dramatic story – that  are actually to be experienced in other dimensions, dimensions the contemporary Western world no lnger has much language for. Milton’s way seems part sci-fi, part theology.

The second thought, here,

what if Earth
Be but the shaddow of Heav’n, and things therein [ 575 ]
Each to other like, more then on earth is thought?

Is also an intersting one.We may have to use simile, metaphor, analogy but  what if in some way those things hold  further apart those dimensions than they actually are? What if  all these levels of being are relfections of the same thing?

But let me go back to the poem: has Satan gained anything by moving from the sea of fire to the land of fire?

Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet.  Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap’t the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover’d strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.

Well, the change of scene seems to have given them a sense that they can move, that they have autonomy,  that they have strength. Is this false, given that both places are full of fire? Ye the rebel angels  take the move as sign of their own powers, ‘thir own recover’d strength’.

Which makes me think, they are not going to stop here. More next week.

 

 

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