Paradise Lost 17: Skipping Over Legions of Fallen Angels

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Single Red Camellia  18 February

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’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

In the last reading of Paradise Lost I had I short half hour and managed to read a couple of lines. That brought me to about line 375 in Book 1.  Now Milton asks his Muse to help him list the names  of fallen angels:

Say, Muse, thir Names then known, who first, who last,
Rous’d from the slumber, on that fiery Couch,
At thir great Emperors call, as next in worth
Came singly where he stood on the bare strand,
While the promiscuous croud stood yet aloof? [ 380 ]

In what order of power/evil/fallenness do they appear? What is, Milton’s eyes most evil?

The chief were those who from the Pit of Hell
Roaming to seek thir prey on earth, durst fix
Thir Seats long after next the Seat of God,
Thir Altars by his Altar, Gods ador’d
Among the Nations round, and durst abide [ 385 ]
Jehovah thundring out of Sion, thron’d
Between the Cherubim; yea, often plac’d
Within his Sanctuary it self thir Shrines,
Abominations; and with cursed things
His holy Rites, and solemn Feasts profan’d, [ 390 ]
And with thir darkness durst affront his light.

Those pagan gods whose shrines resided inside the temple come first. This is interesting to me, as someone who has shied away from organised religion since the age of  nine or ten.  Are there still false gods intertwined with real God? can bad stuff be housed within good?  I move from thinking about religion to say thinking about Social Care.  Is Social Care, paid for from our taxes a good idea? I believe so.  Is some very bad stuff done within Social Care? I’m sure so.  Is Milton’s thinking about his religious  universe a different layer of the same reality I think of in terms of  Social Care?  That thought is what  keeps me going in this very long – two hundred lines long – list of fallen angels. I read through it, but I’m reading very fast, getting the rough outline, looking for anything that interests me, that connects to something I know. I rush through  the ancient middle Eastern deities and places of  Old Testament history, and stop for a moment at this:

For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both; so soft
And uncompounded is thirEssence pure, [ 425 ]
Not ti’d or manacl’d with joynt or limb,
Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,
Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose
Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,
Can execute thir aerie purposes, [ 430 ]
And works of love or enmity fulfill.

I wonder if Milton has been reading The Tempest and met Shakespeare’s Aeriel? It’s interesting, too, that the nature of spirits does not change even after the fall – they are still pure Essence, uncompounded and can take any shape they choose in order to do their works of love or emnity. What does that say to me abou t the way works of love or emnity come to me/from me?

I wonder what purpose this lists serves or served?

It has to be a different experience for us reading now, mostly not knowing any of the Biblical source material. But to Milton and his contemporary audience (fit audience, though few, as he says)  is it a making live an old  text, is it reanimating the old material and making it now: here  they are, those ancient names of bad gods, and here they are – somehow – with us still –

Belial came last, then whom a Spirit more lewd [ 490 ]
Fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love
Vice for it self: To him no Temple stood
Or Altar smoak’d; yet who more oft then hee
In Temples and at Altars, when the Priest
Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons, who fill’d [ 495 ]
With lust and violence the house of God.
In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

We move from Old Testament (To him no Temple stood/Or Altar smoak’d😉   into the present tense:

In Courts and Palaces he also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noyse
Of riot ascends above thir loftiest Towrs,
And injury and outrage: And when Night [ 500 ]
Darkens the Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial,flown with insolence and wine.

and then we move from the Old Testament to another mode of being, Ancient Greece, so that Milton is covering all knowledge bases: whichever civilisation you trace it through – Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian – same story: the fall from Heaven and corruption  brought to Earth:

These were the prime in order and in might;
The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d,
Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held
Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth
Thir boasted Parents; Titan Heav’ns first born [ 510 ]
With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d
By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove
His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found;
So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet
And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top [ 515 ]
Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air
Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff,
Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds
Of Doric Land;

I’m reading very fast, because there is not much here for me. But as the list begins to wind down, I pay more attention:

All these and more came flocking; but with looks
Down cast and damp, yet such wherein appear’d
Obscure some glimps of joy, to have found thir chief
Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost [ 525 ]
In loss it self; which on his count’nance cast
Like doubtful hue: but he his wonted pride
Soon recollecting, with high words, that bore
Semblance of worth, not substance, gently rais’d
Thir fainting courage, and dispel’d thir fears. [ 530 ]

I’m thinking about the psychology of mass despair and mass revival: the fallen angels see  their chief  ‘not in despair, ‘  Good, isn’t it,  the way Milton puts it so that the key word, ‘despair’ is still hugely present, only slightly made negative by the much smaller ‘not’. The fallen angels still see loss in him, ‘which on his count’nance cast/Like doubtful hue’ yet their sense of despair is overcome by Satan’s  semblence, his appearance  of ‘not despair’, his pride carries him through , and carries the fallen angels through, too. I can imagine in  real life being carried by such pride, or allowing myself to be tricked. I think of dictators and false leaders, the willingness to follow, to be duped.

That’s my time up for the day. Must get out into the garden while the sun is shining.

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