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

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

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

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

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

You’ll find a good online text here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Paradise Lost 12: Can Thinking Make It So?

 

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Nasturtiums in the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Reading Practice: Sunday, Paradise Lost by John Milton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More next week.

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

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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 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.