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

chrysanth.JPG
Autumn Chrysanthemum welcome on the front step, 29 October

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s read the second part of this paragraph:

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

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

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

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

                                                   to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn

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

Or am I thinking amiss?

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

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

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

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

On, to the next third of the paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second thought, here,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Paradise Lost 9: When you ain’t got nothing/ you got nothing to lose

what kind of tree
What is going on with this tree in Greenbank Park? Is this a giant nest or a strange growth? Arborealists, help!

Continuing my weekly reading of 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, start at the beginning – and read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

We’re still very near the beginning in Book 1. Last time, I’d read Beelzebub’s speech  which considered different possibilities re the devils fallen state and chiefly, what if they were still to do God’s bidding even here in Hell?  Satan, though racked with his own inner torments, is quick to respond and shut down doubt in his  second-in-command. worth reading the whole speech once through in and then we’ll go slowly:

Fall’n Cherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.
But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

The line ‘Fall’n cherube, to be weak in misrerable’ is one of my favourites in the whole poem. Why? Well, it is true for one thing! It rings in my  heart and has done for many years,  as a way of  helping me think about  lots of different forms of  weakness, of misery and of the causes of  evil. I bring the line to life for myself by thinking of various instances of weakness I have known, having witnessed or experienced them.  Times when I or other people have felt or acted weakly, and I remember the misery that seems concomitant with such weakness.  I read it again and look up ‘miserable’ in the online etymological dictionary (main meaning: wretched).

I read it again in  the context of its sentence:

Fall’nCherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist.

Interesting that Satan introduces the idea of active weakness (doing)  first, before the more passive form (suffering) and that they seem in this context to be almost the same – it doesn’t matter whether you are doing or suffering, it remains the case that ‘to be weak is miserable’.

I wonder in what tone these words are spoken?  It feels sympathetic at first , ‘Fall’n cherube,’ feels almost affectionate but it quickly becomes  a sort of call to arms. Satan respondes very quickly to Beelzebub’s potential capitulation. ‘But of this be sure’  is a  rallying cry. See t how the tense remains in the present : we’re still fighting him, it’s not over, ‘contrary to his high will/Whom we resist.’ The acknowledgement of weakness is so fleeting!  It is made, but it is quickly transformed into something else, and that something else really says ‘we’re not weak, we’re active’.

If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.

Satan is a pragmatist: he doesn’t mind not winning the big battle, so long as he can continue: he’s content that  ‘oft times’ they ‘ may succeed’. Oft is one  limitation and feels a small one – often is not occasional. But there’s a bigger doubt in ‘may’, though the line is carried along by the hope in ‘succeed.’ So  we talk ourselves up.

Next comes a sentence I don’t think I’ve looked at in all my previous readings of the poem:

But see the angry Victor hath recall’d
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav’n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav’n receiv’d us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing’d with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.

The storm of their defeat is coming to an end.  God  has gone quiet. What is this but a chance for Satan and his fellows to somehow act? The energy of  Satan’s will is an amazing power. It’s not  moments since we saw him at the nadir or despair – look back to line 55!

for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all;

But having Beelzebub to rally partly rouses him and now he is actively seeking to do something – to be weak is miserable, but his will is not to weakness:

Let us not slip th’ occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

It’s interesting to note that Satan doesn’t understand the action of God. The storm of fury has ceased and Satan does not know why: ‘whether scorn/ Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.’ And it doesn’t matter, because the thing is to act and to

Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

Reinforcement is a building up, which may be possible if there is hope, resolution is reconcilation which will be necessary if there is no hope. Whatever else happens, Satan is going to find, it seems a way to continue to fight.  When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose, as Dylan sings.

All recognisable,  and all  too human.

More next week.

 

Paradise Lost 8: Recognising The Fact

beech in park.JPG
The fact of a Beech tree in Calderstones Park . Deny it if you can!

My daily reading and writing habit has faltered because of pressure of work, travelling, personal stuff, having other kinds of writing to do and finally, loss of heart.  But yesterday I nearly got  back on the horse and today, here I am at the mounting block, ready to set off again. I was sorry, yesterday, not to get to Paradise Lost, which I’ve been reading on Sunday mornings, so I am going to continue with that now. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line of the home page which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

Last time, I’d been reading Satan’s first speech to Beelzebub (and himself) which ended with his avowed intention never to seek forgiveness for raising  impious war in heaven: I pick up again at the same place, at Book 1 line  111: seeking forgiveness seems an  appalling act of subservience to Satan (as it usually does, at least at the start of the process, to me):

… that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

So spake th’ Apostate Angel, though in pain, [ 125 ]
Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despare:

‘Ignominy and shame beneath this downfall’, Satan says  -and I wonder, why both ? Ignominy is shame, isn’t it? I look it up. Ignominy is related to loss of name, whereas shame seems more about being exposed, and has an interesting link to physical exposure which makes me think of Adam and Eve (as we’ll see in several years when we get  there) covering themselves with leaves post-fall, when they see themselves as naked and feel shame.

I notice that Satan  wants to distance himself from his first sense of  lowness and loss. Now  he has had a chance to regroup and gather his psychological force, asking for forgiveness is  seen as a comparator  – it’s worse than the fall itself, ‘beneath this downfall.’  And suddenly Satan is regaining power, and able to think about his situation  as  not lost and possible redeemable.

since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable,

He remembers that the empyreal (the very highest) angels are like Gods, but it is interesting to note that even here he exaggerates: they are not Gods but  only godlike. That slippage seems to come naturally to Satan. He is gathering strength, and  looks back at the recent defeat now as useful experience:

Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,

Such experience, he says,  can be put to good account as he commits himself to ensure the battle  continues:

We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable,

What I’m interested in here is  the reality of this as a human mechanism. Why do we so easily recognise Satan and the pattern of his mind? It’s all-too-human to keep going with some self-destructive pattern of thinking, telling yourself you are being  strong by sticking to it.  The denial of reality and the assertion of self in the face of it is a sort of  everyday breakage and fall. I’m thinking of some lines from a William Stafford poem I’ve been re-reading lately in A Ritual to Read To Each Other:

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

This is about lying, I think or perhaps my emphasis should fall more on recognising the truth. I’ve been reading about Stoicism and was moved last night to read that Stoics believe in a kind of universal unity, that the universe as a whole system may be God, a pattern, way and state of givenness. I think I believe that. The recognition of truth, of what is, is a key part of  a happy life, even if what is is painful. I think that is helpful to me as someone living without a conception of God and yet with a strong sense that there is always truth (or truths).  So I’m interested here to see that Satan, the baddest baddie, is characterised by an  inability to ‘recognise the fact’ of what has occurred.

Now Beelezebub speaks:

And him thus answer’d soon his bold Compeer.

O Prince, O Chief of many Throned Powers,
That led th’ imbattelld Seraphim to Warr
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds [ 130 ]
Fearless, endanger’d Heav’ns perpetual King;
And put to proof his high Supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate,
Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat [ 135 ]
Hath lost us Heav’n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,
As far as Gods and Heav’nly Essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns, [ 140 ]
Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallow’d up in endless misery.
But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow’rd such force as ours) [ 145 ]
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e’re his business be [ 150 ]
Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire,
Or do his Errands in the gloomy Deep;
What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

There’s an all-too-predictable slipperiness here in the line about why God won the war in heaven (‘Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate’). Using the William Stafford words, ‘know’ and recognise’, I’d say, like Satan, Beelzebub knows what happened. What happened was ‘strength’. But as soon as he has  said that word he must deny it, undercut it by deliberate non-recognition,  adding ‘chance or fate’ as possible elements.  Yet Beelzebub hasn’t yet come to a state of complete denial. He can still see ‘the fact’ of defeat:

Too well I see and rue the dire event,
That with sad overthrow and foul defeat [ 135 ]
Hath lost us Heav’n, and all this mighty Host
In horrible destruction laid thus low,

Beelzebub is less strong than Satan, and seems in two minds,

As far as Gods and Heav’nly Essences
Can perish: for the mind and spirit remains
Invincible, and vigour soon returns, [ 140 ]
Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state
Here swallow’d up in endless misery.

The phrase,  ‘the mind and spirit remains/Invincible, and vigour soon returns’, seems like phrase Satan himself might use but it is quickly followed by a more truthful thought : ‘Though all our Glory extinct, and happy state/ Here swallow’d up in endless misery.’

Beelzebub now allows various possibilities to run through his mind:

But what if he our Conquerour, (whom I now
Of force believe Almighty, since no less
Then such could hav orepow’rd such force as ours) [ 145 ]
Have left us this our spirit and strength intire
Strongly to suffer and support our pains
That we may so suffice his vengeful ire,
Or do him mightier service as his thralls
By right of Warr, what e’re his business be [ 150 ]
Here in the heart of Hell to work in Fire,
Or do his Errands in the gloomy Deep;
What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

Say God was the  all-powerful – what would it matter, Beelzebub asks himself, if vigour did return to us? Mightn’t that mean that we are here now simply to do His bidding?

What can it then avail though yet we feel
Strength undiminisht, or eternal being
To undergo eternal punishment? [ 155 ]

This is reality. And we know that Satan is going to have to speak against it and persuade Beelzebub to think differently. As he does:

Whereto with speedy words th’ Arch-fiend reply’d.

Fall’nCherube, to be weak is miserable
Doing or Suffering: but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from thir destind aim.

But that’s my hour up for today. So glad to be back.

Paradise Lost 7: Keeping Your Armour On

vilnius balloons
Balloons taking off in Vilnius

I’m continuing my weekly Sunday reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

Last week, I’d finished my reading time by reading but not thinking or writing about this opening speech by Satan:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

I wish I had the tech to do a Philip Collins (The Times) ‘the speech unspun’ on this! As I don’t, I’m going to first identify for myself the basic movements:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright:

Here Satan sets off in an uncharacteristically wobbly mode – his first word is ‘if’. He can barely recognise his erstwhile companion and there is real pain in the centre of this opening line, ‘But O how fall’n!’, and before we know it his thoughts are back in heaven, as if that is where they naturally tend. Is the word ‘happy’ a giveaway here, before Satan’s normally secure defenses are up? He’s not saying, or thinking,  ‘changed from how you were in that hell we used to inhabit where God kept us in subservience’ – which is the line he will take once he has got his psychological armour on. Vulnerable, newly broken, and without cover, he is  able to remember the realms of light as ‘happy’. He remembers too Beelzebub’s brightness, which made him (then) one of the brightest. Now? ‘If thou beest he…’ Is it you, my old companion?

If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin:

Now Satan begins to remember what is was that made them companions, ‘mutual league,/United thoughts and counsels, equal hope/And hazard  in the Glorious Enterprise,’. This is speechifying language and the beginning of Satan’s psychic armour, especially when he gets to ‘Glorious Enterprise’. It’s as if  Satan has already begun to remember  their time together as heroic, despite still not quite being able to recognise his comrade for ruin.

That feeling is relatively short-lived as the visible ruin and internal misery  must be acknowledged ‘now misery hath joyn’d/In equal ruin.’ Yet the thought ends with a colon, not a full-stop. And that colon is a place where Satan can gather himself for the speech that is  coming, which collects a self-aggrandising momentum from the way Satan puts the story into words. The honest naiveté of ‘Happy’ is quite gone already :

If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms?

Psychological armour goes to protect the will even when it knows it is wrong? Does he know, really believe, he was wrong? No, he can’t quite get to that. Only that first instrinctive, unprotected utterance to Beelzebub contains a sense of acknowledgement – ‘if thou beest he’. Perhap the armous is already on, undislodged from before – during the war in Heaven – pride came before the fall and pride remains. only that worry of loss in the ‘if’ is a little chink. Or is it that I just want to see that?

Things change, I think at the word ‘He’ in line 94, when Satan begins to see a bigger picture than simply their position as fallen beings. There’s also Him.  He.  After having acknowledged  ‘so much the stronger prov’d/He’ having uttered that pronoun the reality of ‘He’ and the fall begins to strike again. it is suddenly no longer possible to recall it simply as a Glorious Enterprise.

But having thought of Him, and even acknowledged ‘so much the stronger’, Satan must now undermine that thought in order to retain his own sense of identity (summed up perhaps in the phraseology of Glorious Enterprise). It’s ‘He with his thunder’. Not  ‘He with his superior powers’ ‘He with his brighter light’, ‘He with the all the inevitability of  our creator’…No, just ‘thunder’. Empty noise.

Ah, so ok, he proved stronger with that thunder, and ’till then who knew/The force of those dire Arms?’

Only the ‘dire arms’ could have forced an acknowledgement, however grudging, of God’s power. I didn’t know! Satan cries, like a child who hasn’t realised the parent really will take command of a situation. I thought I would get away with it! I thought I could boss you!

…yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne.

There’s no real acknowledge of what God is, only of the expression of power, thus God is a ‘Potent Victor’ (which seems in the same register as ‘Glorious Enterprise’) but remains ‘in his rage’. That rage doesn’t bother me, Satan boasts. He has no intention of  repenting nor changing;

that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,

I think it is important to remember Satan’s account of his motives here. Is he speaking the truth? I don’t know. But I want to note what he does say.  He has a fixt mind.  He seems pleased with that, proud of it. He feels disdain and it comes from a sense of injured merit.  Disdain – not deeming worthy. Do the opposite of deeming worthy. Funny that it is such an opposiotnal word. You have to have an opponent.  I’m  going to note these on my PL page as thnigs to remember later. (See top line).

Satan ends by claiming to have ‘shook his throne’, as if nearly winning (if he did nearly win, we don’t know, we have only his word for it) was almost the same as winning.  But it is that claim which seems to give him the courage to look up and continue his rebellion – we are no longer in the land of ‘if’ and ‘how fallen’:

What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall;

There are many instances of  these moves in real life, which I don’t have time to go into here. Everyone will have experienced that  moment of feeling beaten by something you know to be right and yet being unwilling or unnable to acknowledge that  rightness because it costs you (me) your pride.  I may abhor Satan but I don’t half recognise him.  Luckily for me and my  confessional mode that’s all I have time for today. Pick up again here next week.

Paradise Lost 6: In Which I Resolve Not To Argue with John Milton

chaos taking hold in the front garden
Chaos taking hold (or nature asserting itself) in the front garden

I’m continuing my weekly Sunday reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name. You’ll also find a page on the top line which I’m using to list things I need to think about or keep tabs on as the reading goes on.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

If you are joining me new today, start at the beginning – read aloud. You’ll find a good online edition here.

But to Hell, my friends, let us now turn. Last  week in PL5 I’d been thinking about the difference between being in Hell, or being dead, and being alive or with the possibility of hope. in Hell, ‘hope never comes that comes to all’. Let’s pick up at line 70.

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

First thing I want to think about is ‘Eternal Justice’, which I think really means ‘God’. Can it really be just that a place should be prepared  in which ‘hope never comes that comes to all’? I’m going to reread that sentence –

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

Prepar’d, ordain’d, set… this was made in advance for something  God knew would happen. A God who acts like this can seem  merely punishing, ungenerous, lacking compassion.  He creates everything, some of it bad and then creates a punishment for that bad stuff.

I need to translate such a thought into something I am able to accept, if I am to accept this God Milton paints for me. And I want to do that rather than argue with Milton, so I am going to think  of  God and hell as something like opposing states – that if there is one and it is natural, the given, then the other must naturally follow.  Let me try again, then.

God creates something imbued with freedom to be alive in any way it wants.  There is a natural order – God at the centre,  the most powerful light in all the regions of light,  but adherence to this order is not compulsory, it is not fixed. Everything in  creation can choose how it wants to be. But those that choose to be ‘rebellious’ will find themselves in a place where ‘hope never comes that comes to all.’

Of course there is something in me that is rebellious: I don’t want to do what I am told by God or anyone, so a part of me, even as I am writing, is very  angry on behalf of Satan and the rebel angels.

But I’m trying not to think in that simple way.  I’m trying to think about  how things are: in my experience, when I have done bad things I have felt bad. I don’t need a God the Father to make me feel bad, it just is that. I ask myself , is Hell then a bigger version of this? If you try to take God’s place -as the most powerful , the all powerful- then naturally you fail and fall into despair? Hhm, the introduction of power makes me feel rebellious again. I try to start my thought again. I really do not want to fall out with John Milton.

I need to understand what he  means by God and to try to translate that into something I can understand.

I ask myself, is there anything in the poem so far that can help me with that?  I reread, going quickly through the lines looking for clues to Milton’s idea of God:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

First I notice the fourth word of the poem, ‘disobedience’, and note that  this is a universe in which ‘disobedience’; is a key factor. I ask myself what I think of that.  The angry  anarchic child in me wants to say, no! I don’t accept any rule of law. But  another part of me does believe that there are underlying laws (of love or  the good, I don’t know what to call them) at play in the life I have experienced.  And if there are laws then of course there may be disobedience.

I’m thinking of what may seem a weird analogy.

Say someone was  doing a violent crime , a rape or murderous attack. In the moment of the doing, in the time leading up to the moments of the doing, the  attacker might well feel a kind of power. In a sense this person is rebelling against human being – the law – instinctive as well as civil, most of the time, being: we don’t kill or hurt each other. But for some reason, the attacker wants or needs or chooses to so attack. He feels powerful and as if he is in control, or that the act of violence will give him some kind of control. (I’m thinking of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment but also of real murderers, real rapists).

If there were no human kind-ness (assuming this to be the basis of human law) the attacker would  continue to feel powerful and in control after his attack. But  there is human kind-ness, and growing from that, in most places, there is civil law. When you have attacked someone you have violated those laws. They exist even in a place, such as a war zone, where there is no rule of law. They exist whatever you as the attacker think.  Your state of mind does not change the outer reality.

Later, the fact of having done the bad act becomes its own punishment – as  it does for Raskolnikov. If, for a murderer, for an attacker, that act never becomes bad, we would say, the murderer is mad, the rapist is a psychopath. And by that we would mean: he does not share our sense of human kindness. He has created – in opposition to human kind –  his own, false, reality.

Using such an analogy to translate Satan and Hell and God helps me see them in a different way, so that I stop wanting to protect and forgive Satan’s rebelliousness.  Do I want to protect and forgive a murderer, rapist, attacker while they continue to  shout their right to do such harm because they are so powerful?

I might argue back to myself, saying: but all Satan has done is challenge God. But isn’t that possible at many levels? The initial challenge  (do you accept a greater law than your own desire) is the basic  question the poem asks me to ask myself. We’ll come back to this when we see  Eve’s fall. (My mind has jumped to AA and the requirement to acknowledge a power greater than yourself. Thinking of some of the self-justified damage alcoholics and other addicts do and have to re-frame in order to recover).

Second I notice, ‘And chiefly thou, O Spirit that dost prefer/ Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure’, which seems a clue to the place God might take in Milton’s heart (is this a different kind of thing to the story we are getting in the poem? Did Satan  have access to a spirit in his heart? Does the murderer?)

Thirdly I notice ‘eternal providence’, which seems connected to the  thing I started with today, the ‘prepar’d, ordain’d, set… ‘  provision of Hell as a place for the rebellious. Providence is a word to do with seeing ahead, providing for what may be ahead, fore-seeing and preparing for what is fore-seen. Milton believes that  God has and does fore-see everything. Everything that may possibly be is already known, as if God could see time and space and action and possible action all at once.  The result of being the murderer is hell, and it exists, as it were, before the crime is committed. It’s always there, whether I commit the crime or not. The fact that that hell is there does not mean anyone or anything made me do it.

So now I am thinking, I need two (or more!) lenses for reading the poem. The first is the immediate – I’m in a dramatic story, and Satan, its huge anti-hero, is about to speak for the first time.  But also I need the  long distance lens of attempts to understand the God Milton shows me (is God the right word? or perhaps ‘universe’ – no, not big enough!, ‘the creation’? No, not big enough, God is bigger than that. It is the all, the everything? The reality?).

But we’re out of time.

I’m just going to finish this morning’s reading by reading this first speech of Satan (to Beelzebub)  and we’ll come back and start here next week:

If thou beest he; But O how fall’n! how chang’d
From him, who in the happy Realms of Light [ 85 ]
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
Myriads though bright: If he Whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprize,
Joynd with me once, now misery hath joynd [ 90 ]
In equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest
From what highth fall’n, so much the stronger prov’d
He with his Thunder: and till then who knew
The force of those dire Arms? yet not for those,
Nor what the Potent Victor in his rage [ 95 ]
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though chang’d in outward lustre; that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sence of injur’d merit,
That with the mightiest rais’d me to contend,
And to the fierce contention brought along [ 100 ]
Innumerable force of Spirits arm’d
That durst dislike his reign, and me preferring,
His utmost power with adverse power oppos’d
In dubious Battel on the Plains of Heav’n,
And shook his throne. What though the field be lost? [ 105 ]
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
That Glory never shall his wrath or might [ 110 ]
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power,
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath [ 115 ]
This downfall; since by Fate the strength of Gods
And this Empyreal substance cannot fail,
Since through experience of this great event
In Arms not worse, in foresight much advanc’t,
We may with more successful hope resolve [ 120 ]
To wage by force or guile eternal Warr
Irreconcileable, to our grand Foe,
Who now triumphs, and in th’ excess of joy
Sole reigning holds the Tyranny of Heav’n.

 

 

Paradise Lost 5: Paradise late, on regular falling and the power of hope

marigold
A marigold taking the sun this afternoon

For a number of reasons I lost my morning rhythm today. But never mind.

Later, I thought, it will be a nice afternoon, I’ll do some gardening, then do my  reading and writing. Lovely afternoon it is too, and I’ve been taking cuttings – lavender, box, hydrangea, clematis – thinking of building up a good stash of new plants for Calderstones secret garden when we reopen in 2018. I’ve also taken cuttings of the single red camellia outside my window, which is often the first big thing to flower in my garden in the new year, sometimes in bloom by February 14th.  I’ve tried taking cuttings before but always failed. Is it hope or foolhardiness that makes me want to try again? Here they sit, in a heated propagator which I can’t close because the cuttings are too tall – is that going to be the reason they won’t take this time? A little draft? Come on, you come from the Himalayas, don’t you? Harden up!

 

And yes,  it looks as though the leaves are touching – which would be fatal – but, don’t worry, they are not.  And to the side they are George Eliot’s eyes looking on kindly, even ardently. Let’s see if that helps. It’s certainly helped me keep  going over the years.

camellia prop
Red camellia under the encouraging eye of George eliot

Putting gardening from my mind, here I continue my weekly Sunday reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

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’.

The failure to propagate the red camellia is  not a moral failing but a practical one. Yet the mechanism may be similar. When I fail (or fall, to use the Miltonic word) to do the good thing there will be many likely elements in my failure – sometimes I don’t know what they are or cannot distinguish – in plant world: the draft, the temperature of the propagator, bacteria on the secateurs… all of which might translate in human world into ego, stupidity, greed … it’s hard to know which nasty bit of my being  is causing the fail/fall. In Paradise Lost,  it is  almost always pride (though sometimes love, and perhaps simple copying). But pride is the  chief sin. It is worth us spending some time, if not today, then soon,  thinking about what pride is.

Last week I’d made a start on the first paragraph, and got as far as line 44. Satan, whose name when we first hear of him is not Satan, and not Lucifer, but ‘the Infernal Serpent’  (by the time he got to corrupting us he had fallen very low indeed) had, motivated by pride to challenge God.  We’ll find out later that when he did that he was called Lucifer (meaning bearer of light: he was a very high angel then), – but by the end of this paragraph  he is renamed as ‘Satan’ (meaning enemy, adversary, astray).  It’s interesting to think about the way names change – here and elsewhere – depending on the meaning-place someone/thing has in the universe. I’m thinking of Mum, Grandmother, person.

But let’s read some:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

It’s fast! No sooner has  Milton introduce ‘him’ than he is hurled headlong and we’re suddenly all in hell. We started with a simple question – what first caused?…but before we’ve even got our breath we’re in a place of no light, ‘rather darkness visible.’

Let’s go into one sentence: read it aloud:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.

I have to look up some of these words.  ‘Ethereal’ is  delicate, so light as to barely exist. That’s one kind of thing, one mode.  But no sooner is that word uttered that it, and all thought of it is gone. Almost every other word in the sentence  is from another register – a register of fearful anger; hurled, headlong, flaming, hideous, ruin, combustion, bottomless perdition. (Perdition – eternal hellish punishment).

I notice that God is at the beginning and end of this sentence. In between – the punishment.

You might be thinking, because it is so very far from our own contemporary values,  how could a just God deliver such violent punishment? If we were reading real-time and in a group there would certainly be someone feeling worried by that. I feel worried myself. But I also think about the translation I need to make. If I  go away from my own idea of good or best – how does it feel?  It’s all very mild compared to Milton, but even so, it does not feel good.  The more you can feel or imagine or know the good, the most good, then the more bad you feel going in the other direction.  Is this religion or morality? If a species of moral being, is it innate?  Dr Johnson said somewhere that no man desires bad,  if he desires bad, he will make it good to himself.

The more Almighty the God, the more terrible must be being removed from him. The more you believe in the good, the worse would be the falling away from it? And it is a long way for  the Infernal Serpent to fall (later we will learn that they fall for nine days) but just now these nine days are spent rolling in the fiery gulf – perhaps like drowning in fire.

Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal:

‘Confounded’ here  means  what? Stymied, unable to think? ‘Confounded though immortal’ seems terrible because it implies a permanent state of being at odds. But it is worse than that. Milton makes us  experience this foul state almost through Satan’s eyes: we feel his feelings as he gains consciousness:

But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:

There’s a thing about time here, connectedto  both ‘lost’ and  ‘lasting’. ‘Lost happiness’, suddenly feels very real, very happy, very lost, though we know that at the time he did not prize his place in heaven. This sits alongside or even gives way to ‘lasting pain’ (so good that there is a  half rhyme  between those two very different states).  I’d always read ‘baleful’ as  ‘sad’ but have just checked and found it to be to do with rage, anger, wickedness, evil intent. How could I have misunderstood that word for  decades! I don’t think I know the word from anywhere else. Is it because I pity Satan at this point? Had I gathered that wrong meaning from ‘huge affliction’? from ‘dismay’? Is it because I am now seeing with his eyes:

At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:

Here, ‘hope never comes/that comes to all’. I wonder about the placement in time of this statement. We are fallen creatures,  yet that ‘all’ applies to us.  I will want at some point to link up pride with the absence of hope, hope to the possibility of  forgiveness or restoration. This place is stuck, there’s no change here; ‘torture without end
Still urges’, and the deluge is always ‘ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d’.

Is the fact that we are not in hell, but here on earth, in time, worth us thinking about?

Time makes a difference. One of the things that I had to process during the ten years after my mother died – we were  estranged when she died, our relationship was broken – was the fact that there was no more time for her, though there was for me. I was still in our relationship, but she wasn’t. My side of it was still live and I could therefore act, change, do something. But she could not.  this, I realised, over a long, slow, painful period of time, is one of the great things about being alive. You can change, be different. It was up to me to change my mind about our relationship, because she couldn’t. In this sense, being alive (however tough)  is like the  opposite of hell.

I think this stuckness of hell makes a difference to Satan and  differentiates him from any living human, however fallen, however bad.  The possibility of hope changes everything.  But for the fallen angels this is what must be for ever because they are defined in opposition, always:

Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

More next week.

Paradise Lost 4: Milton turning on a sixpence and heading towards Hell

yellow daisies.JPG
Yellow daisies becoming autumnal, back step, 10 September

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

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 I’d made a start on the first paragraph, and got as far as line 32:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

So, now I’m going to continue with the answer, from line 33. Just watch the speed here, Milton  turning on a sixpence, and getting right into the thick of it. We are on our way to hell.

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.

I’m interested in  the fact that Milton, having posed  the question, how did this happen, must imagine positive, deliberate corruption – his word is ‘seduced’.

For Milton God is all  good, and all things so then how does evil get into the system? The question  Milton has asked is ‘what first caused our Grand Parents to fall off from God?’ The answer is ‘the infernal serpent.’ The bigger question ( ‘what first caused the infernal serpent?’) is one we haven’t come to yet – and I’m going to leave it here, in my list of  things I need to leave to one side.

It’s as if we start with the easiest bit – about us, humans. What causes us to fall away from the good? We are seduced by others, in this case ‘the infernal serpent’.

I’m thinking of a line from Les Murray, can’t remember the poem ‘ there never was a bad baby’. Are we born good?  Or born maleable? If maleable, then our  moral life is dependent on not getting involved with bad stuff, not being seduced by it.

But Milton doesn’t want to go into any of this now, just wants to head on towards the hero/anti-hero of his story: Satan.  Let’s read that sentence again. Remember punctuation is key to getting the rhythms:

Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt.

‘Guile’, ‘envy’ and ‘revenge’ are the elements that lead our seducer to ruin us. And how  did he do it? He did it by deception. You may begin to feel Milton might be excusing us,  finding some leeway for the Mother of Mankind. Well, we’ll come back to that.

If I said, find the  strongest words in the above sentence? Almost all the words are powerful.  Behind the guile, envy, and revenge, fuelling the deception is pride:

what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels,

When did he  do it? He did it at that point when his pride had ruined him – his pride ‘cast him out’.

This is the first of many iterations in the poem of the argument that pride is  the ultimate catalyst for the fall.

Sorry, short post, busy day, late start, out of time.

I’ll try to  open up a new blog page  to list ‘issues’ I want to remember in these PL posts as they emerge… More next week.

 

Paradise Lost 3: What Caused That First Fall?

angnes on a wall
It’s natural to walk that line, isn’t it?

Continuing my weekly Sunday morning reading of Paradise Lost. Search  previous posts under that name.

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 what I was interested in was 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’.

Paradise Lost is a poem written in a language that is foreign to me as a non-Christian, though  Christianity is a language of which I have a partial understanding. The poem’s subject matter, in the largest sense, is brokenness and the repair of  brokenness, and this is a  field of experience about which I  do know something. So, for me, reading Paradise Lost is like struggling to understand something personally important to me, spoken by someone I can’t properly understand.

Of course there is some help in the form of footnotes and so on.  Often, I find they don’t help very much, but I’m using the online edition offered by Dartmouth College which has good notes you might want to  turn to sometimes.

For beginners, one of the things to realise early on is that there are powerful rhythms, like tides, in the poem , and they help  me catch the meaning.  Often we’ll be reading sentences, and before that clauses, andd ofteimes individual words, but the large unit is what I call the paragraph  (though may be it is a stanza?)

What I’d do here is  read the whole paragraph through, to get a rough sense of what’s happening, then break it down into sentences, then build it back up again. So, let’s read it through and as you read, aim to breathe at the next bit of punctuation. last week we’d got as far as the second paragraph.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d [ 35 ]
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,
He trusted to have equal’d the most High, [ 40 ]
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie [ 45 ]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night [ 50 ]
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquishtrowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain [ 55 ]
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde, [ 60 ]
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace [ 65 ]
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d [ 70 ]
For those rebellious, here thir Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and thir portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.
O how unlike the place from whence they fell! [ 75 ]
There the companions of his fall, o’rewhelm’d
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam’d [ 80 ]
Beelzebub. To whom th’ Arch-Enemy,
And thence in Heav’ncall’d Satan, with bold words
Breaking the horrid silence thus began.

Now I’m going to go slowly into the first sentence:

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

It’s important to remember that Milton is talking to the ‘spirit’ he wants to inspire him. So when he says, ‘Say first, for Heave’n hides nothing from thy view’, the pronoun, ‘thy’ refers to the Holy Spirit. This spirit, one of the  three parts of the Christian God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is all-seeing, knows everything and is real, and really available to John Milton. I don’t have any sense that Milton doubts that this spirit will help him: Milton is the mouthpiece, his verse a vehicle for something which wants to  be spoken.

I slow it down a little more and look more  closely at the task with which Milton is calling for help. It’s not the spirit writing the poem, is it? It’s  Milton – he has asked this first question, he has chosen the order. The spirit knows and sees everything, but does ‘everything’ have an order? Milton sets the question – picks a starting place –  and the spirit answers. It is humans who need chronology, narrative, a beginning:

                                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]

The world is broken, humans are broken, yet in Milton’s universe we are creations of a perfect God. How can there be mess and  breakage in a universe created by a perfect God?  Go back down the human generations, each set of human beings messed up by the ones that came before and eventually we get to our ‘Grand Parents’, Adam and Eve.  There they were, more close to God than any subsequent generation, ‘Favour’d of Heav’n so highly’ , and yet they  fell off. How come? Let’s start there, Milton thinks.

Well, they were ‘favoured of heaven’, but they were also constrained;

                       say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off [ 30 ]
From thir Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraintLords of the World besides?

Apart from that one restraint, they were Lords of the World.  You can put the emphasis there, Lords of the World. Or you can  put it on the prior clause, ‘ and transgress his Will
For one restraint’.

As a human, I recognise this inability to accept restrain imposed by an external force.

Would you accept it ? To be a lord of the world? You think you might,  or you know you wouldn’t, depending on how rebellious or acquiescent you are, and perhaps also depending on what might be gained.  But whatever each of us reading might individually think, we  probably do recognise as deeply human the inability to accept restraint.

I’m thinking of my grandchildren – each at some each catching your eye while they do the thing you’ve told them not to do. ‘Shall I do this?’ the toddler glance asks, as they do it. And if I do it, as I am, what will you do? Is it a real restraint or can I break it? Is this the edge of the world or just you, making up a law?

But Milton seems to think that this desire to question the boundary is in itself a fall and  in a sense is a form of breakage:

Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?

I looked up the verb ‘seduce’ in the etymological dictionary.

1520s, “to persuade a vassal, etc., to desert his allegiance or service,” from Latin seducere “lead away, lead astray,” from se- “aside, away” (see secret (n.)) + ducere “to lead,” from PIE root *deuk- “to lead.” Sexual sense, now the prevailing one, is attested from 1550s and apparently was not in Latin. Originally “entice (a woman) to a surrender of chastity.” Related: Seducedseducing.

Replaced Middle English seduisen (late 15c.), from Middle French séduire “seduce,” from Old French suduire “to corrupt, seduce,” from Latin subducere“draw away, withdraw, remove” (see subduce).

If God was a whole, the entirety of creation a Godly whole, how could our Grand Parents have fallen?  Some other element must have entered which could cause this state of partition, drawing Adam and Eve aside and away from the natural and right order of things.  That element, for Milton, is  ‘the infernal serpent’. And we will come to him next week.

The big question I am left with this week is: is bad part of God as well as good? If the whole thing, everything , is the creation, the being, the actual manifestation of God… then surely whatever  causes the leading astray, the corruption, is part of God too? We’ll come to this when we look at the  ways in which Satan turned from God.

But:  if bad is part of what always is,  is what always is ‘God’.

More next week.

 

Paradise Lost 2: Written in the Heart

 

garden at dawn.JPG
Front Garden early morning 27 August

Last Sunday I started my online reading of Paradise Lost in honor of Milton’s Cottage celebratory reading aloud  of the whole poem – which they undertook in order to celebrate 350 years since the poem was first published.

Last week in Paradise Lost 1 I set out  my way of reading this poem, and the some of the reasons why  I  read it. I had  started to read the first sentence, thinking about Milton the writer, setting out to do this great thing, knowing it was or should be great, and consciously setting himself across two human cultural traditions, the Classical and Biblical :

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Before we go further, I want to read the original as it appears in Genesis Chapter 2 , in the King James Version which Milton would have read. I’ve posted the Genesis text at the bottom of this page. It’s the original of the main story.  If you are interested in this, there is a comprehensive world of scholarship looking at the creation of  the Genesis text and the wikipedia entry looks to me a good introduction to it.

But let us  just take it that  the Genesis text existed and was well known to Milton, and was accepted as a sacred text. Trying to imagine Milton, I try to imagine such a sacred text as a reality to me. Not sacred in the sense of untouchable, for after all, the puritan revolution had  made the text available (the King James Version was thestandard  English bible, the Bible in English, not Latin) to everyone who could read or listen. But sacred in the sense of being applied at all times to life.

Milton began to think that he could make something – something as yet ‘unattempted in prose or rhyme’ – from this Biblical text – and it is in a sense as if the poem is a  complex responsive reading. But what impulses lie behind the  need for this imaginative leap to remake the text?

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

This is the subject of and the impulse behind the poem. This is the story of the ‘first’ disobedience and  all subsequent ones, their ‘fruit’.

Disobedience is a hard word for a contemporary reader like myself. I have to translate it  into my own language. For Milton, for Genesis, it is about  there being an order or way set by God: humans are asked to obey. When we look at Genesis, we see a commandment:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

For some reason my mind jumps back to the Emerson I was reading while I was on holiday earlier this summer.  I’m trying to think of the idea of a commandment or law as a natural experience. The water acting upon a rock teaches a fisherman ( Emerson said). The natural law one may deduce from that is that even stone can be changed by persistence. If you wanted to translate that into a law of God you could say something like ‘ God said,  ‘let the weak have powers to change the strong’.

I’m thinking of the people who existed pre-Genesis and the priests and others who wrote it, of the Cuneiform tablet with the Atra-Hasis Epic in British Museum.  These ancient people see actions in the world and create stories explaining them. Those stories are built around the concept of Gods or God. Those Gods or God demand obedience. People’s real daily actions are changed in order to  meet those  (Godly/story-based/idea-based) demands. A religion, a cultural artefact of great complexity, is built up over hundreds of years.  Milton grows up in that culture. He accepts it as his own.  He believes that each heart has its own relation to God – priests, Rome, fancy stuff, even churches,  not needed. He wishes to remake it all  afresh for himself, and for perhaps his world. After all it is plural pronoun he uses:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,

I’m going to go on now to the next sentence, where Milton calls for help:

And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

He asks  God, the  creator, to come to him,  asking the power that created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, to instruct him. ‘Instruct’ is  not ‘inspire’, a verb more about building than breathing: Milton is asking for very clear and definite direction.

What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

This is going to be an argument,  he tells us: not a story or a myth but  series of logical propositions which will be in effect a proof that the ways of God are right, are justified. But it will come from ‘me’. It’s personal. Milton is going to bring everything he has got.

All of which seems to suggest someone may feel that the ways of God, as they currently stand, do not seem justified or justifiable, that ‘eternal providence’  does not seem to be asserted. Or they need help.  Or perhaps it is just that this is the best subject Milton can imagine for an epic poem? It’s a strange mixture of ego, ambition, intellect, learning and then suddenly, the cry for help. ‘The upright heart and pure’ is the place Milton believes his God prefers. Milton’s heart – is it upright? Is it pure? as anhonest man he will know that althoug he tries, it is not. Nothing works properly here, in a world afterthe great fall.

Do you start such an enterprise from a position of certainty?  Do you start it to ensure  or to build certainty? When I read ‘ what in me is dark’ I can’t help but remember that Milton is blind.

What Milton has  in the way of  equipment for his epic journey, is a  back story, the cultural artefact that is the Genesis myth, or to put it in Milton’s voice, his own reading of the Holy Bible. And he has classical exemplars, Virgil, Homer and others. He has is human experience,  which has been large, as he has lived through and been involved in the English revolution and the execution of a King. And he has his heart. He has what the poem will later call the ‘umpire conscience’. He has his darkness, too.

Interpreting the Bible without church or priest was  the religious revolution of Milton’s age. He’s going to do that now, in this profoundly personal endeavour, using his own heart as his raw material, fleshing out the Bible story.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

GENESIS ORIGINAL :

And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
11 The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12 And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13 And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.
14 And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.
15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.
21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
22 And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.
And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
20 And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Paradise Lost 1: fanfic for messed-up beginners

 

tree in flower.JPG
Unrecognised shrub in flower, Japanese Garden, Calderstones,  18 August

Congratulations to Milton’s Cottage on staging their 350 person reading aloud of Paradise Lost today, in honour of the anniversary of the first publication of  the poem 350 years ago!  A lovely occasion and event – wish I could be there! I  hope you will video some of it and get it online.

In my own celebration of that  event  I’m starting a reading  of the poem here and will continue to read it, on Sundays,  from now on. Use the search box and search for  ‘Milton’ or  ‘Paradise Lost‘.

How I’m going to do this

I’m going to paste in some lines for each week’s reading.

I’ll be pasting from the Dartmouth college site and I’ll leave the links to footnotes in so you can get to them if you want.  Try not to, in the first instance, they often don’t help with the most difficult bits but they distract you away from the text. But sometimes they are useful – today’s reading (opening 16 lines) for example, useful just to see that the poem is grown from a  dual tradition, the Bible and the Classics, and that Milton looks back to and calls on both. He’s using everything he’s got.

I want to read without history as far as possible. I’m treating the poem as a piece of literature in the first instance. History is distracting from text. Can come later. Again, there may be footnotes we really need, but we’ll try to skim along.

This is a sort of scanning exercise, want to get the lay of the land, the rough  outline of things.

I will be leaving out big chunks which I find boring.

I will sometimes spend  a post on a line I find fascinating.

Finally, I’m reading with assumption of no knowledge at all on the part of my readers (or my self). This is Paradise Lost for absolute beginners.  But I  hope some readers will be more than beginners: I’m hoping they will be like me, very messed-up beginners.  This is Milton for readers who know they need some help.

To get ready to begin

I came to Milton via Wordsworth. The two poets are connected in that Wordsworth wanted to emulate what Milton had done in Paradise Lost, and so Milton’s poem is one of the models and  creative impulses behind Wordsworth’s great poem, The Prelude.  If you  aren’t into Wordsworth – take my word for it – he’s worth reading. And his recommendation, in this case, is worth taking. I needed that recommendation because initial instinct about Milton was that I didn’t like him. I was afraid of him and feared his moral judgement and inexorability. I still do, but I have found over  thirty-five years of reading Milton that  there is much to love and be grateful for – even as he shouts me down.

The  mess I personally was in, and the additional and wider mess that we as a society are in,  is a long one – Wordsworth saw it more than 200 years ago, when he wrote ‘London 1802’.

Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

Ah, the missing dower of inward happiness!

I might have read Paradise Lost as part of my undergraduate degree,  but if I did, it made no impression on me at all except perhaps to set off ‘keep away’ warning bells. I don’t recall writing about it, which is often the most intense form of reading. But in the first year of my Ph.D. I began to know the poem in earnest. That three-year post-doc study, which I began in 1983, was not for me an academic exercise. I was undertaking it to build or discover for myself a way of understanding and making sense of my own real life.  I needed to work something out. I needed to know what I believed.

That sounds pretentious, and in my own defence, I can only say that I needed  this understanding, this firm ground of believing something because I didn’t have boundaries or beliefs and I was scared by that. Earlier, in my teens and early twenties, a life of no boundaries – do what you want, drink what you want, behave as you want, take whatever drugs you want –  had seemed exciting and brave and revolutionary. But now, with deaths both literal and metaphorical  behind me, and my mother, with whom I had fallen out, dying from alcoholism,  a disease of despair, I was desperate to find a way of being that would keep me alive and help me, as E.T. says, be good. George Eliot nodded me towards Wordsworth, Wordsworth gave me a shove in the direction of Milton, and here I was, face to face with these opening lines:

BOOK 1

THE ARGUMENT

This first Book proposes, first in brief, the whole Subject, Mans disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was plac’tThen touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent; who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many Legions of Angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven with all his Crew into the great Deep. Which action past over, the Poem hasts into the midst of things,presenting Satan with his Angels now fallen into Hell, describ’dhere, not in the Center (for Heaven and Earth may be suppos’d as yet not made, certainly not yet accurst) but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest call’d Chaos: Here Satan with his Angels lying on the burning Lake, thunder-struck and astonisht, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in Order and Dignity lay by him; they confer of thir miserable fall. Satan awakens all his Legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; They rise, thir Numbers, array of Battelthir chief Leaders nam’d, according to the Idols known afterwards in Canaan and the Countries adjoyning. To these Satan directs his Speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new World and new kind of Creature to be created, according to an ancient Prophesie or report in Heaven; for that Angels were long before this visible Creation, was the opinion of many ancient Fathers. To find out the truth of this Prophesie, and what to determin thereon he refers to a full Councel. What his Associates thence attempt. Pandemonium the Palace of Satan rises, suddenly built out of the Deep: The infernal Peers there sit in Councel.

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Shall we start?

The poem is divided into  ‘books’,  and each book starts with a summation of its content, which Milton calls, ‘the argument.’ I tend not to read the argument, or  only to come back to it later, because the range of what is to be covered is so vast, I can’t take it in. I prefer to jump into the poem and read it sentence by sentence. So let’s start with that.

One of the things you have to get used to in this poem is the need to find main verbs. Reading aloud is a good way to do this, and if you want  sense of the rhythm of the lines  I like this reading by Tom O’Bedlam. When you are first reading,  try reading along with Tom for a while – see how he doesn’t stop at line endings but tries to read along the sentences, or within sentences, the clauses. Head for a piece of punctuation!

The opening lines are heading towards the verb ‘sing’ at the opening of line 6. But first we get  a tiny precis of what the song is  going to be about:

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Words to think about here:

Disobedience, forbidden, mortal, death, woe, loss… these words are clues to us that this is about things going wrong or being done wrong and the awful consequences of that wrongness. Which starts with ‘disobedience’.  A word to get my 27 year old back up if ever there was one!  Who makes laws anyway! Old patriarchs!  God with a white beard! I don’t obey you.

I rant,  I remembering my ranting, but  I read on.

Translation into modern English: it’s about how humanity broke the law and the fallout from that – death and human woe – and the persistence of that fallout until  ‘one greater man’ (Christ) fixes it.

Because the notes are there in the Dartmouth edition, I couldn’t help myself clicking on the note about ‘of man’s first disobedience’ and as you’ll see if you click on it, it tells us that Milton’s opening, while being totally about this subject (the Bible story of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden of Eden) yet it is also in the tradition of more ancient epic texts – all of them beginning with an announcement that we’re going to hear a story that explains how some bad stuff came about.  That’s a good and all-too-human place to make start. After all, everyone over the age of thirteen and some people younger than that, knows that the world is broken.

And Milton connects himself to the biggest human voices of the past. That’s quite interesting to me, because one of the things I get  interested in as I read is the sense of Milton as the writer of this poem – it used to offend me, but now I’m interested in the fact that  like Mohammed Ali getting ready for a fight, Milton has to big himself up in his own mind in order to do this big thing. I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest! And yet, for Ali, some of the time, that was just true.

I’ll notice that stuff as we go. But let’s reread those first sixteen lines and get the run of them in our mind again :

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat[ 5 ]
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

When we hit the main verb, ‘sing’ in line six, Milton is addressing it to the ‘Heavenly Muse’. But it is Milton who is going to be singing – this is him writing, composing and composing by reciting aloud while his daughter writes it down, this poem. He is asking to be inspired and more than that – claiming, stating that he is inspired by the same muse that spoke to or inspired many biblical figures.

This muse

on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinaididst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos:

I have to look up Oreb and Sinai, because my knowledge of the Old Testament is weak. In those places, that shepherd must be Moses.  Moses, inspired by the holy muse taught the Israelites the story of creation, and that story is to be found in Genesis.

I want to note that John Milton is here connecting himself directly to one of the key figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition. My younger self would have scoffed at Milton’s ego. My older self is in awe of his ambition and sense of involvement. One of the You Tube comments I’ve read called Paradise Lost  fanfic, and I think that is  right. Milton is so completely in tune with the Bible, at one with it, engrossed in it. And he feels able to join in and respond to it, calling on the same muse to help him write a poem that is unsurpassed:

I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

I do not know why my younger self was so appalled at the ambition of this – it isn’t as if I consciously rated the great traditions of the Bible or classical literature. I just didn’t like Milton’s self-assurance. But as I read this morning, I can’t help seeing that self-assurance has real grounds – it’s like seeing a great  sportsperson or any artist displaying the ease of great skill, practice, developed talent. It’s there, and you have to acknowledge it.  so – we’re off…let’s see how he sings this adventurous song.

A final point to think on – if he was so at ease in his Bible, why did he want retell the story? But we’ll pick this up next time.

To finish, read that chunk again. It’s import to get the sound of the lines into your head.