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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Paradise Lost 14: Princes, Potentates, Warriors…Satan’s oratory & those cursed footnotes

not dark when leaving work at 5.00pm.JPG
Trees outlined in the not quite dark,  Calderstones 5.00pm on Friday

Picking up my nearly regular sunday reading of Paradise Lost  where I left off last time in Book 1,

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. Satan, cast out from heaven and now knowing only hell, is regrouping and calls on his close confederate, Beelzebub, to rouse their battered  armies to try

once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

So Satan spake, and him Beelzebub
Thus answer’d. Leader of those Armies bright,
Which but th’ Onmipotent none could have foyld,
If once they hear that voycethir liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft   [ 275 ]
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Thir surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire, [ 280 ]
As we erewhile, astounded and amaz’d,
No wonder, fall’n such a pernicious highth.

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round, [ 285 ]
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands, [ 290 ]
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

I’m pausing there because line 283 opens a longish verse paragraph  of the sort I don’t enjoy, and I want to skip over it. There are too many references I don’t get and the main matter isn’t very interesting to me.

But before I get into or pass by that paragraph, I want to notice something about the way speaking (or is it the items of language we speak – the emotions carried by the words?)  builds up confidence or changes what you might do.

Last time I read this I had been thinking about the way Satan’s thought changes as he speaks – he doesn’t seem to start off knowing what he is going to say, but  instead starts and finds himself talking himself into something (see here). As he speaks now, he’s heard by Beelzebub, who is ready to go with him and knows that if Satan addresses the troops, they will also be easily persuaded, too.

If once they hear that voycethir liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft   [ 275 ]
In worst extreams, and on the perilous edge
Of battel when it rag’d, in all assaults
Thir surest signal, they will soon resume
New courage and revive, though now they lye
Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire, [ 280 ]

That voice, their livliest pledge… yes but what is it in the voice or language of an orator which moves us?

The satanic army last heard Satan talking as they lost the war in heaven: it is the cause of their fall and the reason ‘now they lye/Groveling and prostrate on yon Lake of Fire’. Yet Beelzebub puts it in glorious language which misses out the loss of the war, and concentrates on their  nobility in the fight.  Look at the words: livliest pledge, hope in fears and dangers, in all assaults thir surest signal, new courage, revive.  All the losses are forgotten as Beelzebub primes himself, Satan, us and anyone else listening to believe in him. Certainly it works for Satan:

He scarce had ceas’t when the superiour Fiend
Was moving toward the shoar; his ponderous shield
Ethereal temper, massy, large and round, [ 285 ]
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands, [ 290 ]
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.

The trick of this overwhelm of reference is to look up then up quick and then read  again, not thinking about them. The references are often interesting (e.g. the Dartmouth edition reference here to Tuscan artist: Tuscan artistGalileo (1564-1642). Milton visited him and saw his telescope in Valdarno, the valley of the Arno. Galileo’s telescopeand the observations he made with it supported the Copernicanmodel of the cosmos over the Ptolemaic model, much to the Church’s chagrin. Galileo spent most of the last years of his life under house arrest, ordered by the Church.). the problem is they so interrupt the flow. You have to accept that interrupt the first  and many subsequent times round!  I like the Dartmouth online edition because it’s very easy to glance at the references. The  Longman edition, edited by Fowler, is also good for that – the references are on the page.

Sometimes I ignore them, sometimes I’d just skip these descriptive parts entirely, and sometimes fellow readers will make me read both the descriptive bits and the notes. But let us read on now through this description of Satan. Tough going? read it aloud, follow the punctuation, pause at every comma.

His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps [ 295 ]
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

In passages like this, I’d be reading a sentence or a clause at a time, and asking  group members to translate into modern English to ensure we have the drift. Then I’d be looking, or asking my group to look for things of interest. Sometimes there aren’t any! Sometimes  you think there’s nothing of interest and then, because you’re going so slowly, there is…

His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with to support uneasie steps [ 295 ]
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps
On Heavens Azure, and the torrid Clime
Smote on him sore besides, vaulted with Fire;
Nathless he so endur’d,

I’ve just been in Norway and seen some of those tall pines! Mildly interested in them.  Milton asks us to think of the tallest ship’s mast, then takes human perspective away by saying, ‘that would be just a wand’ (wand – thin flexible whip of wood) compared to Satan’s spear.  It’s all much more gigantic than we can imagine. Once we’ve got that picture in mind he asks us to picture Satan struggling, using the spear as a crutch ‘to support uneasie steps’ which have to be compared – by Satan, by Milton, by us, to the kind of steps he would have taken in heaven, on Heavens Azure. We don’t get to see them, simply to  picture them in a negative print of this. Not this. Not this. The torrid clime of Hell punishes Satan even as he tries to move.  It ‘smote on him sore besides’ – besides what? I ask myself. Besides remembering how easy it was move to in Heaven.

The mental pain of loss comes before the physical pain of  fire.  But see what we are dealing with: ‘nathless he so endured.’ The will of this creature!

till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call’d [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orionarm’d [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.

Milton is using whatever references he can get to put connection points in his reader’s mind: he’s telling us something unimaginable: how do you get your reader to imagine something unimaginable? Metaphor is the method, using things we might know or could learn about: picture the fallen devils, abject and lost, like fallen  leaves, psychologically stunned, amazed, by the change that as happened to them.

And then Satan rouses them:

He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

Not leaves, he calls them, not a pile of lifeless stuff on fire,  but ‘Princes, Potentates, Warriors, the Flower of Heaven’ . I imagine myself as a fallen angel, addressed like this. How good  (but painful) to remember I was once the flower of heaven… and is heaven now lost? Look at the syntax here. It implies Heaven is only  lost

If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits;

as a fallen angel I’d be deeeply attracted by that ‘if’.  Then we have a couple of alternatives;

or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue,

Are they resting?  To even posit this as possibility is an amazingly cheeky, perhaps sarcastic,  recalibrating  of the situation! Satan then offers another – to his listeners, vile – suggestion:

Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour?

And perhaps that is a real possibility. Perhaps some of them, so broken, without his  oratory, might change their minds?  Satan now piles terror, scorn and humiliation on his listeners. The conqueror, he says

now beholds
Cherube and Seraphrowling in the Flood
With scatter’d Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav’n Gates discern
Th’ advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.

There’s no evidence of this – Satan is manipulating his audience to  make them remember their humiliating rout and feel new fear. Why? So he can move them! Now comes the call to arms:

Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n. [ 330 ]

What would they have to rise up for?  Well, they’d move for Heaven, ‘once yours now lost’ if it seemed a possibilty.  If you read any of the reference links to leaves/shade/shades… you’ll have seen the fallen angels pictured as dead leaves piled up and also as ghosts.  Satan, moments ago needing to use his spear as a walking stick, is calling them back to a new stand, to rebellious life.

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

nastutiums.JPG
Nasturtiums in the rain

First, an apology to regular readers for my radio silence last week and the somewhat intermittent signal prior to that.

I’ve been very busy with things at The Reader and often times when I wake up I have got some pressing matter leftover from the day before and simply have to do the practical thing and deal with whatever it is. I hope that period of huge busy-ness is going to slow down in the weeks ahead. But if I go offline don’t think it means I’m  having an extra hour in bed (though  if I can, I will) just think of me reading or writing documents, ploughing through email trails or travelling on those early trains.

It makes  me think about the difference between the life of contemplation and the life of action, an old chestnut to many readers, I’m sure, but one I’ve not studied, though I’ve had powerful experience of it. It’s  twenty  years since I founded The Reader, with my colleague Sarah Coley, when we produced the first issue of The Reader magazine in Spring 1997. The Reader has since become one of the defining acts of my life, and often has demanded action at the expense of contemplation. I’m lucky in that I had an equally  long period of  contemplative life  before The Reader, from 1980, when I enrolled as an undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool Univeristy.  All I did, apart from personal life, and the practice of  writing, cookery, sewing and DIY, for twenty odd years  in the centre of my human span, was read and think about and sometimes teach literature.

That stood me in good stead, charging my innner battery for the long years of Reader action ahead.  But when weeks become the kind of busy-no-stop weeks I’m in at the moment, I miss the rhythm of my life contemplative and my Daily Reading Practice. So I was glad this last week to enjoy two Reader Thinkdays with colleagues – the first at Calderstones, where for the first time we brought everyone working on site to share some reading and to do some thinking about organisational development and ethos. How can we use our cafe coffee grounds for compost and how get  literature into the Ice Cream Parlour? How make a human connection between the kitchen and quality team?

Later in the week I traveled to a Polish Community Centre in Birmingham where our  national and far-flung criminal justice team  were meeting for their own Thinkday – same feeling of  excitement and pleasure at spending contemplative time with colleagues. We read Chaucer’s poem, Truth and spent a lot of time on the pressures of  working in high secure environments.  We asked ourselves, what is the value, for our group members,  of an hour of calm group attention – a moment of contemplation –  in a week of danger, self-harm, despair?

Those hours with colleagues felt like a sort of contemplation, and a valuable use of  my time, though they didn’t translate into anything visible here.

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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 got to about line 250, Book 1. Satan, fallen from Heaven after challenging god in battle, is utterly ruined, chained to a burning lake in deepest hell. He is speaking to himself and  looking about, he has risen from the lake and found some  burning land on which to find a footing. And now he is contemplating his lot:

                           and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: [ 260 ]
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
But wherefore let we then our faithful friends,
Th’ associates and copartners of our loss [ 265 ]
Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool,
And call them not to share with us their part
In this unhappy Mansion, or once more
With rallied Arms to try what may be yet
Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell? [ 270 ]

Last week I was thinking about the way a mind may change. Satan feels sorrow, perhaps sometimes something approaching remorse but it is a flickering sensation, always overcome by his determined will to remain the same. Does this mean that   he is unchangeable, a given  like gold or air or fire, simply what it is, immutable? Can it be true that  this  how minds, beings, human beings, are?

Certainly there are some givens that do not seem to change – those who have brought up babies will have seen some element of what we call  ‘personality’  or perhaps character, always present.  Is this Satan’s case? He’s essentially an assertive fighter? He boasts that he is Hell’s ‘possessor’, as if  simply arriving there makes him its boss. And what is it about him that makes him that boss? His mind, which is his own, and which gives  him a  power to own anything, anywhere. He is

                                            One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

Like the noun ‘possessor’, the verb ‘brings’ is powerful, and gives Satan agency. This is  in one sense false – he has no agency about being sent to Hell,  for nine days and nights he fell, and was unable to stop himself , and is now unable to go back to Heaven (though his thoughts often turn longingly in that direction). Yet there is a powerful will in his mind – is that the same as agency? What you can do, think, in your own mind is one thing. How you can affect reality – the outside world – is another. Satan brings to Hell ‘a mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time’.

Powerful equipment, but perhaps broken  – though still dangerous – equipment? Could such a mind hold you up (I  imagine Nelson Mandela in the Robbin Island Prison) and hold purpose and  self-control together in terrible situations? Yes. Could it be a broken mind asserting itself – I imagine an incarcerated murderer, never repentant, never sorry.  Yes.

Now Satan gives us two of the poem’s most famous lines:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. [ 255 ]

This is a power that minds – any minds, good or bad, working well or broken – may have, just as lungs have the power to take in – more or less – oxygen.  Satan asserts the greater power of his mind over external reality.  Each reader must surely recognise some truth in this – how we think  about things does change them. But in what sense can the extremity of Hell be made Heav’n? If that was true why not stayed chained on the burning lake? And the next line seems in some way to undercut the sense of power Satan is desperate to hold on to;

What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom Thunder hath made greater?

I don’t know why I have a feeling that  ‘ if I be still the same’ is sad:  perhaps implies being stuck with yourself, the  rigidity of not being able to change. It is no matter where he is –  he is himself.  For a fraction of a second this does not feel good.  Then Satan reasserts himself – he’s only ‘less than he/Whom thunder hath made greater’.

That ‘less’ must chafe and gives rise to the thought that  God is only greater because he makes more noise.

Can you make a Heaven of Hell by thinking? I think so. This a power humans have, one we both do and often don’t recognise. There’s also external reality in which we stub our toes on reality whenever we try not to believe in it. And yet the world changes because people think thoughts.

Time to stop for  today because there is action to be taken in the garden – the ivy must come down, I think. It’s a hellish job.

But if I simply said ‘There! I’ve thought: the ivy has come down and been carted to the dump…heaven!’ I don’t think the garden would look any different. So in what sense is the mind it’s own place, making a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n?

More next week.