Paradise Lost 19: Seeing What You’ve Done, and the Yets Ands and Buts

roses and bricks.JPG
‘I will survive’ : roses growing through stacked bricks on building site

What I am doing in this series is reading Paradise Lost, a few lines at a time, in  instalments.

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.

Last time, (here) I was reading about how having/being  a great, well-oiled, mechanical army makes you feel strong but how that strength comes at the cost of literal heart-hardening. You feel pride but not much else. Satan reviews the army/machine, his heart hardened with pride, but what do the host of fallen angels see when they look at him ?(we’re in Book 1 line 587):

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

I’m thinking about real armies, or even gangs, and how when we are part of such a group, we might look at our leader.  Not always with total admiration, I imagine, even if you have adopted said leader willingly.  I watch. I see  what he is, I know what he is. Supply your own real life leader, where you know they know they are tricking themselves but you don’t say – or even hardly dare to think in consciousness – that  they are doing so. They army ‘observ’d/Thir dread commander’, where ‘observd’ is not the same as ‘looked’, or even ‘watched’ :there’s a distance and perhaps even a judgement in ‘observd’. At first we see only the leader’s strength and pre-eminence:

he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr;

But that is soon undercut by the sense of loss that attends all the fallen:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d:

The ‘yet’ is crucial. It raises issues of time and what continues after an act.  When we’ve done something wrong – imagine your own wrong thing, whatever would count as ‘sin’ or ‘corruption’.  A simple time-bound act, which is completed, is one thing.  (But is any act ever simply time-bound? Doesn’t everything have reverberation and consequence, ongoingness, internally even if not externally). And many other acts of wrong-doing are not, can not be, time-bound, because they affect the being of ourselves and others. In Satan’s case, he has not  yet lost everything, though the ‘yet’ gives us the clue that that will inevitably perhaps happen.  If you do something bad, and stop, that’s one thing. If you do something bad and continue, that’s another.

He looks like an ‘Arch Angel ruin’d’, but you still get the  words ‘Arch Angel’ in a sighting him before you get to the word ‘ruind’. Something  of his original state yet remains. I’m thinking of the innocence of babies and small children. They are, as Blake might have thought, innocent of experience, experience has not sullied them yet. All experience  is (is it?) corrupting. I’m thinking of a speeded up film of a peach rotting –  there’s corruption – it is natural, it must happen, given that we are in time, rather than in a frozen moment. The closer you are to  young childhood the less sullied by experience. Is there an adult innocence which might remain unsullied? Some people do seem closer to ‘good’ than others. And when we see it, we can see what cynicism looks like and how  corrupting it can be.  How things unfold and continue in time matters.   I believe this  makes it possible for those of us who live to change, when we’ve done wrong, to do better or less wrong.  If we wish. And if we can. For Satan this is never a possibility, as we will see.

Next comes a longish Miltonic simile, which you might, in a Shared Reading group, want to spend a little time on, going forward in order to look  back again at what we’ve just read:

his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs.

Good to get your group remembering what it looks like when mist obscures the brightness and yet lets us  see the sun. Or to remember the strange cold unnaturalness  of the eclipse. And to feel, that feeling e have in an eclipse does not feel good. So while Satan is upright like a tower, Milton is also undercutting him and  wanting us to also feel, Satan has lost the best of himself. It’s not good. And his  troops can see and feel that  -remember,  we started this secton with them observing him.

And now, as if a camera turned from a long panning shot of the army to a close-up of Satan, we learn how it feels to see what he sees:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

First we see him, from the outside:

Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime,

What a complicated picture of experience this is – however he is darkened by his loss, yet he still shines more brightly than any of his followers. I’m noticing the qualifier ‘yet’ then the next qualifier, ‘but’:  even as he is brighter, he  is also scarred and careworn . Now another ‘but’ –

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge:

These lines are full of ‘yet’, and ‘and’ and ‘but’. Milton doesn’t want to us to say one simple thing about Satan – he wants us to see as much complexity as we can take. Including finally – and for the first time? – ‘signs of remorse’. This comes as he sees the state of his fellows:

but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

The ‘yets’ and ‘buts’ and ‘ands’ are so important  for building the complexity of the situation. I wonder if any of  the recent world dictators/tyrants/murderers have ever felt like this – bearing the guilt of corrupting others, ruining them. How awful too to  feel them both ‘faithful and  yet ‘withered’. But  then, does it need to be tyrant, I ask myself, could you imagine being that person? Seeing what you’ve done wrong writ large across the faces and lives of others? And of course I can.

Life after the fall is full of such misalignment, paradox, odd conjunctions, yets ands and buts. That is why I love this poem: there is no other work of literature that so strogly sets out whast it means to be fallen, me, you, the world, the lot.

Morning Incense…Paradise Lost off-piste

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Welsh Poppies greeting the Sun

These sunny mornings I can’t bear to read and write and am instead out in the garden, watering, propping, pruning and thinking of some lines from Paradise Lost (sorry to jump so far ahead, this is from Book 9

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—for much their work outgrew
The hands’ dispatch of two gardening so wide:
And Eve first to her husband thus began:—
“Adam, well may we labour still to dress
This Garden, still to tend plant, herb, and flower,
Our pleasant task enjoined; but, till more hands
Aid us, the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Someone asked me at the weekend what I would do if I didn’t work at The Reader, and I replied that I would garden, imagining not working  as retirement. If I had to have another job? I’d like a junk-shop or to work in small town general auction house. but if I didn’t  work at all? I’d be gardening.  Mine is a smallish plot –  I mean, compared to people with an acre or so – two gardens, one back, one from, each measuring  – according to my old notes 10 metres wide by 18 long.  You have to go through the house to get from one to the other,  we’re a terrace and there’s no side gate.  No greenhouse (I did have one once but West Kirby’s wild winter winds blew it flat) so everything is bought in or needs to be easily propagated.  I do roses (lovely Albertine, mainly) from cuttings and  any other things you can stick in the ground to sprout roots. I grow perennials, lots of geraniums,  Bowles Mauve wallflowers, poppies… but mainly I grow couch grass.  It is a natural for my sandy soil and I can’t defeat it – the opposite in fact: it often defeats me. Still a garden is agreat teacher, as Gertrude Jekyll said:

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.

(I got this quote from the twitter account of a gardener I follow –  Alison Levey (http://www.blackberrygarden.co.uk/).)

I go out in the sunny morning and so exactly what Milton describes:

Now, when as sacred light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid flowers, that breathed
Their morning incense, when all things that breathe
From the Earth’s great altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair,
And joined their vocal worship to the quire
Of creatures wanting voice; that done, partake
The season, prime for sweetest scents and airs;
Then com’mune how that day they best may ply
Their growing work—

I breathe, and look and  feel grateful and glad, and work out what needs doing next. It’s all tending to wild, and the couch grass is rampant, and though I can’t love that, and no, not those red lily beetles either,  I do love the assertion of nature, the force and energy of the planet and the plants, even though

the work under our labour grows,
Luxurious by restraint: what we by day
Lop overgrown, or prune, or prop, or bind,
One night or two with wanton growth derides,
Tending to wild.

Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

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Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

roth.JPG

 

Paradise Lost 18: Flag-Waving As An Antidote to Fear

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

You may have heard Ian Mackellen and others in a R4 adaptation  of Paradise Lost  by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts.  If not, find it here.  I haven’t listened yet but  like MSR’s poetry so am looking forward to hearing what he has done with this great poem.

What I am doing with it is reading it, a few lines at a time, often in a weekly instalments.

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.

Last time, we’d got to the point where Satan was rousing his rebel army, with ‘semblance of worth, not substance’ and I’d been thinking about  mass psychology and how humans are so roused, by  loud empty noise from assertive types. As the standard is raised, those fallen angels all start jumping up, wanting to be in the band. Of course, I’m thinking of fascism and other flag waving. Could be any of us, getting up there, wanting to join.  Which makes me think about the responsibility to educate ourselves and each other and our children.

To get going today I’m reading this chunk, aloud, slow, and finding the rhythm by going for punctuation, not line endings. (There’s an ellipted -missed-out- pronoun, ‘he’ in the opening line here, after ‘strait’) :

Then strait commands that at the warlike sound
Of Trumpets loud and Clarions be upreard
His mighty Standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurld [ 535 ]
Th’ Imperial Ensign, which full high advanc’t
Shon like a Meteor streaming to the Wind
With Gemms and Golden lustre rich imblaz’d,
Seraphic arms and Trophies: all the while
Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds: [ 540 ]
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.

Hhm,  a piece of epic spectacle, rich with trumpets and flags to rouse emotion, which it does. The fallen angels assert their waking to action by a mighty shout and then :

All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air [ 545 ]
With Orient Colours waving: with them rose
A Forest huge of Spears: and thronging Helms
Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: Anon they move
In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood [ 550 ]
Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais’d
To hight of noblest temper Hero’s old
Arming to Battel, and in stead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

This is interesting – instead of rage, they are moved by ‘deliberate valour’. Which maybe undercuts my sense that this is emotional? But no, I don’t think so.  Unlike the Barbarian hordes, screaming out  of the northern mist,  raging, these are the ordered and choreographed ranks modern armies. Yet this careful and controlled movement is only allowed because of the emotion – we join in, we sublimate ourselves to the mass. And what kind of emotion is it? It is the fear of pain.

Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

It is the emotion of assertion against pain, against ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’. What an astonishing line of poetry, with those ‘ands’ repeating and repeating, as if you’d never be able to banish those feelings.and look where the emotive barbarian horde action has gone – into the word ‘ chase’!  Those massed ranks, moving in complete inhuman mechanistic motion are an emotional reaction, while they move stiffly, deliberate with their arms held high, are chasing ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’.

I see, among other horrors,  the Nazis and the Red Army, but does Milton see Oliver Cromwell’s army?

Thus they
Breathing united force with fixed thought [ 560 ]
Mov’d on in silence to soft Pipes that charm’d
Thir painful steps o’re the burnt soyle; and now
Advanc’t in view, they stand, a horrid Front
Of dreadful length and dazling Arms, in guise
Of Warriers old with order’d Spear and Shield, [ 565 ]
Awaiting what command thir mighty Chief
Had to impose: He through the armed Files
Darts his experienc’t eye, and soon traverse
The whole Battalion views, thir order due,
Thir visages and stature as of Gods, [ 570 ]
Thir number last he summs.

‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’ –  certainly Milton had the picture of a well-trained, mechanised army in mind. they become one obedient creature. Breathing as one.  Thinking as one. How do we know Milton does not admire this army?  The word ‘charm’d’.  They are actually suffering  foul and permanent burning here as they walk over the ground of hell, but they don’t know that, being ‘charm’d’.

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories: For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam’d with these
Could merit more then that small infantry [ 575 ]
Warr’d on by Cranes: though all the Giant brood
Of Phlegra with th’ Heroic Race were joyn’d
That fought at Theb’s and Ilium, on each side
Mixt with auxiliar Gods; and what resounds
In Fable or Romance of Uthers Son [ 580 ]
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights;
And all who since, Baptiz’d or Infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore [ 585 ]
When Charlemain with all his Peerage fell
By Fontarabbia.

Another list of things I don’t know about and could look up and might look up if I had but world enough and time. But I don’t. The Dartmouth edition has all the footnotes. But I’m just reading the main clause:

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories

Pride comes both before and after the fall. He can’t get away from it. Look at the clever human analysis: physical thing, heart, distended and  made strong, hardens.  It’s emotional.  Ouch. The rigidity of  pride. The glory of those flag-waving,  weapon parading marches. And while  I note that nothing in human history has matched this army, it’s the next bit I’m interested in. Tho’ am afraid will have to read this next week, as the garden, in sunlight, beckons.

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

 

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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Paradise Lost 16: Milton’s Time Travel and a Throwaway Line

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The first flower on the single red camellia, 2 Feb 2018

Another week with no time to read and write – or is it that I am not making the time? I certainly have spent time in other ways, and I have written other types of things, but mainly, I’ve been on the road, out of routine.

But that stops tomorrow when I have a full week at Calderstones, The Reader’s home and Head Office and time therefore  to establish the drill:  get up, exercise, shower, read, write. Let’s see how it goes. Meanwhile I can confirm, for those who noticed the pledge, that I  handed my Reader credit card receipts on time and in without causing – I hope – hold up time or trouble to my colleagues in Finance.

This morning I’ve been writing already, working on organisational thoughts to do with The Reader.  Pressing work-related thinking! But now I have half an hour to turn to 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’.

Last week we saw the rebel angels roused by Satan’s oratory. I want to pick up again at the section where I finished last time. Of the now upright, innumerable and massive  fallen angels, Milton writes:

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 names of these angels when they were in heaven are lost, they are ‘blotted out and ras’d/By thir Rebellion, from the Books of Life’. And at this point, they had not yet got the names humans would give them later. In a sense they are now for Milton, and for us reading, unnameable.

This is interesting to me because in a minute we are going to see that  soon enough, by making themselves part of the human world, by corrupting that world, we will come to name, know them as individual  things, presences in person. But here they seem, more frighteningly,  an unspeakable force, a bad energy, a potential for badness. Is this always there, at the bottom of the universe?  is it part of the universe? Milton’s Christian patter means that  fall is fall and bad is bad… but another type of religious view would accept fall, bad, even corruption as natural. I’ve been reading  Joseph Campbell’s The Power Myth which gave me pause for thought about fall, falling, fallenness. I’ll have to come back to this another  time.

Back to the poem.

Quickly, in a move characteristic of his time travel in this poem, Milton shoots forward into the human future.  At the moment these unnamed creatures are on the lake in hell, but Milton suddenly sees them

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

This is huge potential span of future time – lasting right beyond Milton into pagan, pre-Christian times and through him into our own time and  the  future beyond us. And the terrifying  throwaway  line is dropped in as if quite understood and accepted by all –  ‘the greatest part/Of Mankind they corrupted’ – yep, that’s us.

But it is also specifically  the pre-Christian era. The devils become gods, as we see when we read on:

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 ]

That’s a short half hour of reading. But much still to do today and not yet dressed.

 

temp cafe 2
Temporary Cafe being built at Calderstones
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Temporary Cafe nearly there 

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.