Paradise Lost 15 : From Blundering About like Dogberry to the Barbarian Hordes in a Couple of Lines

hellebores.JPGI’ve been on the road this week travelling between Edinburgh, London and Liverpool and I’ve been reading and rereading 4  business books and a novel, A Bowl of Cherries, by Sheena McKay. Have not bothered to do any ‘Just Started’ on them but will do that this week, a little out of kilter, but that’s ok. ‘Just Started’ is really there as record of what I have read.  It’s hard to keep a routine on the road – well, hard for me, struggling with routines at the quietest of times, so my Daily Practice has been out of the window. As has daily exercise, off the menu since I was unwell in November. But now February approaches, and my thought turn to the necessity of daily exercise. the winter dark and down time is drawing to an end.

Is will power limited, as psychologists now tell us? Mine certainly seems depleted, so I’m sticking to minimalist achievements at this lightless  time of year: get your work done, spend time with husband, don’t neglect your expenses causing the fiance team grief.

You can see why I like Yeats’ line ‘forgive myself the lot’  (‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’).

But to today’s reading from 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, I’d suggest a read  through from the beginning first. You’ll find a good online edition here.  But if there’s no time for that, well, just start here and now.

Last week I’d read as far as Satan’s call to his fallen troops, which ended with the exhortation, ‘Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. ‘ Lets now make a start on the next couple of  sentences:

They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.
Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;
Yet to thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd
Innumerable. As when the potent Rod
Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day
Wav’d round the Coast, up call’d a pitchy cloud [ 340 ]
Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,
That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung
Like Night, and darken’d all the Land of Nile:
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;
Till, as a signal giv’nth’ uplifted Spear
Of thir great Sultan waving to direct
Thir course, in even ballance down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the Plain; [ 350 ]
A multitude, like which the populous North
Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands. [ 355 ]

So ordinary and recognisable as well as so enormous and unimaginable, isn’t it ? To begin to give us the enormous perspective of the entirety of Satan’s army ( how many things there are which are out to get us!) Milton sets us off with something we might have seen or could imagine:

They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.

Almost Shakespearean comic, isn’t it, that  stumbling into not awake liveliness? Dogberry,  or the soldiers on watch when the ghost appears inHamlet? Being bestirred before being fully awake, they no doubt bump into each other and  stub their toes, getting their spears interlocked like hapless skiers. But Milton only wants us to see them, not to laugh at them:

Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;
Yet to thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd
Innumerable.

Even as they blunder into wakeful life, they know how bad things are and they feel the pain of burning in hell. I’m just wondering about the negatives  in that sentence , ‘nor’ , ‘not perceave’ ‘fierce pains not feel’: and asking myself, why are they negatives?

Perhaps they make a good transition from the semi-comic previous, which seems to be arise out of unconsciousness, to the full consciousness implied in ‘thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd/Innumerable’.

Satan’s call seems to bring them to conscious life, and before obedience to him, as they wake into consciousness,  they must endure consciousness of pain.  Which they do.

Oddly, I’m thinking of murderers and other offenders here and wondering, when  people are encouraged into crime by another, would there be a similar pattern?  I can imagine such a thing, the one who is egged-on, who goes along, with the other more intelligent or more manipulative one. You know you are goingto do what he says, and what he is going tosay is terrible. Would there be a moment of pain, of full agonising, knowledge? , about to do /be a bad thing?

As when the potent Rod
Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day
Wav’d round the Coast, up call’d a pitchy cloud [ 340 ]
Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,
That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung
Like Night, and darken’d all the Land of Nile:
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;

Now we return to the unimaginable picture of this mass uprising, and Milton draws on a biblical image to help us see.  This is hard for many contemporary readers as we don’t know, as Milton and his readers certainly would, many of these images.  So, if I was reading this in a group, I’d use the footnotes, possibly even go back to the original Biblical text to see the source of the analogy: the main thing we need to know is that those locusts were so many that they made Egypt a place of darkness by day. i’dwant to show my fellow readers that  there’s not a lot to these analogies once you’ve got the footnotes,  and sometimes it pays to look:

And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

14 And the locust went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt: very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such.

15 For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.

We’ve gone from something close to comedy to something terrifying, to fear, in a few lines. And if those locust images weren’t enough Milton also gives  us images of the terrible Northern barbarians, the  Vikings, the Norsemen, Celts, the northern hoardes coming out of the mist to end the Roman empire.

So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
‘Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;
Till, as a signal giv’nth’ uplifted Spear
Of thir great Sultan waving to direct
Thir course, in even ballance down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the Plain; [ 350 ]
A multitude, like which the populous North
Pour’d never from her frozen loyns, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands. [ 355]

Forthwith from every Squadron and each Band
The Heads and Leaders thither hast where stood
Thir great Commander; Godlike shapes and forms
Excelling human, Princely Dignities,
And Powers that earst in Heaven sat on Thrones; [ 360 ]
Though of thir Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life.
Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names, till wandring ore the Earth, [ 365 ]
Through Gods high sufferance for the tryal of man,
By falsities and lyes the greatest part
Of Mankind they corrupted to forsake
God thir Creator, and th’ invisible
Glory of him that made them, to transform [ 370 ]
Oft to the Image of a Brute, adorn’d
With gay Religions full of Pomp and Gold,
And Devils to adore for Deities:
Then were they known to men by various Names,
And various Idols through the Heathen World. [ 375 ]

The speed with which this shift of perspective happens is breathtaking: it’s like applying a different lens to something that seemed blurry- they were nothing, they were like undistinguishable slime on the burning lake until Satan  addressed them: now , suddenly they are up and moving and they are forces to be reckoned with. They have form, social organisations: squadron, band, heads and leaders, they are Godlike. In heaven they sat on thrones.  No more blurry mess.

What is a leader that he can bring about such a transition? I’m thinking of Hitler and the German armies – could broken forces have been brought back to life by his presence? Could the same thing have worked for Churchill?  Is it only war-time leaders who raise broken people up in this way? Alas, no.

So what is it? the presence of the leader is like the presence of the pure idea. The idea might have gone, under pain of defeat, loss, suffering: each devil suffering his own pain, alone.  But then when Satan appears and rouses them, and they take, or find they are able to generate, energy. why?  Because they  believe in something again.

Milton puts an interesting stop to this growth at line 360, once he’s got us imagining the devils on thrones: remember! they are blotted out now! It as if he fears we might be swept along:

And Powers that earst in Heaven sat on Thrones; [ 360 ]
Though of thir Names in heav’nly Records now
Be no memorial blotted out and ras’d
By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life.

That’s a good pun: ras’d and raised. They are rising up, raising themselves. That’s one perspective, one way to see it. But ras’d  also means knocked down, razed to the ground. Are they up or down? Which way is up? For these corrupted devils there is no way to know: hell is heaven, heaven’s hell.

Is that what human corruption is? Not being able to tell good from bad? Thinking bad is good? There was a great soundbite from Samuel Johnson on this about no man thinking that what he desires is bad, it’s all good to him. Can’t track that one down but will  continue to look.

More next week.

 

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