Milton's Literary Method I
Bill Long 5/3/08
In Book I, Lines 192-209 of Paradise Lost
I decided long ago that the only responsible method for me to "read" PL was to memorize it. While others may be satisfied with "PL at 30,000 feet," so to speak, I find that I need to walk foot by foot along every winding way to try to understand the flow of Milton's thoughts and the power of his imagery. This method also inculcates in me a spirit of precision, a trait which many people tend to ignore or even seemingly ridicule but really is very useful as you sort through the complexities of life and attempt to understand the variety of human phenomena.
Today, in these two essays, I write about Milton's portrait of Satan after Satan and Beelzebub conclude their three-speech interaction from I.84-191. Revolt is on their minds, even though Beelzebub is more skeptical of chances of success than Satan. But in order to get a revolt going, they have to look in on the other powers who were also thrown out of heaven. Thus, from their position on the fiery lake or "gulf" or "surge" they begin to make their way in the darkness, whose gloom is only relieved by Hell's livid flames, to their companions. But it isn't until line 225 that Satan actually begins to move ("Then with expanded wings he steers his flight.."), while he and Beelzebub had stopped conversing in line 191. What happens in the intervening 35 lines? Though it is too much to claim that these 35 lines give us the "key" to Milton's literary method, they provide a window into his epic/artistic expression--an expression that holds promise for literary aspirants today. This method consists of four things: (1) a description of Satan's size; (2) a comparison with other creatures of "monstrous size" in ancient literature; (3) a digression on the "hugest" of these creatures, Leviathan; and (4) a longish theological digression about the futility of Satan's designs against God and humanity. My focus here is on the first three traits while theology will only come in for a few comments.
I. Describing Satan--I.192-197
Before these lines we have had no description of Satan's size or bulk. Milton has taken pains in the first 190 lines to describe the setting in the fiery lake as well as the company with whom Satan finds himself, but never do we get a description of his size. We know he has eyes ("round he throws his baleful eyes"), but what of the rest of him? Here we see him, with bobbing head and extended parts. In fact, in a departure from his usual custom, Milton uses the same word ("huge" in lines 196 and 209 to describe Satan, with "hugest" used to describe Leviathan, in line 202) thrice in 14 lines to describe the size of infernal creatures. I like the first two lines of the description:
"Thus Satan talking to his nearest Mate,
With head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes..."
All of a sudden we recall he is floating on a lake lapping with flames of fire. His mental agony, combined with physical pain, severely vex him, but he is determined to strike back at God. So we get a picture of him. His head is above the wave (how else could he "breathe"?) but:
"his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extending long and large
Lay floating may a rood," I.194-96.
If we use the word "rood" at all in our day it is to describe the cross of Christ or the crucifix. But def. 8a. in the OED tells us that it is also a measure of land, "properly containing 40 square poles or perches, but varying locally." The quotations given by the OED tend to emphasize that a "rood" is 1/4 of an acre. From 1538: "One rode, that is the 4 part of an acre of lande." Or, from a 1571 measurement: "Nij, So manye perches you maye conclude the Area of that Figure, which...bringeth 10 Acres 3 1/2 Roodes.." So Satan's body is splayed out on the lake, floating along, covering many acres while his horrid head is above the waves of that lake. Later we will learn that he is "Chain'd on the burning Lake" (210), but now we see him bobbing along on the waves, in torment but with head "up-lift."
II. Comparison to Ancient Giant Figures--I.198-202
Comparisons give Milton an opportunity to "show off" his knowledge. So Satan is likened to Titanic figures, Titanian and Briareos. Milton is a bit confused in equating Briareos with Typhon in line 199, even though both of them were multi-limbed creatures. Briareos was an anient storm giant with a hundred hands and fifty heads, while Typhon was also a storm giant with like numbers of limbs, but his experience of life seemed to differ from Briareos. Milton might have read them as the same because they appear directly after each other in Hesiod's Theogony, lines 817ff. The former is described as follows:
"But the glorious allies of loud-crashing Zeus [the Hekatonkheires; the "hundred-handed"] have their dwelling upon Okeanos' foundations, namely Kottos and Gyes; but Briareos, being goodly, the deep-roaring Earth-Shaker [Poseidon] made his son-in-law, giving him Kymopoliea (Wave-Roaming) his daughter to wed."
Then follows a separate description of Typhoeus, also known as Typhon:
"Typhoeus; the hands and arms of him are mighty, and have work in them, and the feet of the powerful god were tireless, and up from his shoulders there grew a hundred snake heads, those of a dreaded drakon, and the heads licked with dark tongues, and from the eyes on the inhuman heads fire glittered from under the eyelids: from all his heads fire flared from his eyes' glancing; and inside each one of these horrible heads there were voices that threw out every sort of horrible sound, for sometimes it was speech such as the gods could understand, but at other times, the sound of a bellowing bull, proud-eyed and furious beyond holding, or again like a lion shameless in cruelty, or again it was like the barking of dogs, a wonder to listen to, or again he would whistle so the tall mountains re-echoed to it."
Not only does Milton knows, or slightly misquote, his Hesiod, but he makes reference to Pindar's Pythian Ode I, where "Typhon the hundred-headed" was "long since bred in the far-famed Cilician cave." Milton's lapidary poetry simply has:
"Briareos, or Typhon, whom the cave
By ancient Tarsus held..."
Little jewels of knowledge thrown in, even though he tries to "systematize" Greek mythology even more than the ancient traditions that come down to us already systematize the stories.
But Milton seems to be more interested here in a third giant from ancient literature--the biblical Leviathan. While the nearest biblical parallel to this passage may be the reference in Is. 28:1, I wonder if Milton doesn't also have in mind the fantastic description of this "hugest" of the sea beasts in Job 41. There we learn of Leviathan's "mighty strength" and "splendid frame" (41:12) as well as the toughness of his "outer grament" and his "double coat of mail" (41:13). The description continues.
"Its back is made of shields in rows,
shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can come between them," 41:15-16.
So fearsome is the creature that "when it raises itself up the gods are afraid; at the crashing they are beside themselves," 41:25. It not only is huge and terrible-looking, but it can move with incredible speed. "It leaves a shining wake behind it; one would think the deep to be white-haired," 41:32.
The next essay finishes these thoughts.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long