Milton's Literary Methods II
Bill Long 5/3/08
III. Looking into Leviathan--I. 203-208
Just as Milton showed off his knowledge, albeit slightly wrong, of the gigantic Greek mythological figures from antiquity, so he feels inclined to do so with respect to Leviathan. However, in Milton's mind, the latter was not simply a mythological figure from the deep past that fought against God and was confined to the depths of hell. Leviathan was also a living being, a humongous creature who stalked the ocean and about whom fantastic tales and legends grew. The one with which Milton seems most acquainted here is that of a ship's crew landing on an island, plunging in an anchor and then later discovering that this island was no island but a great fish. Hear Milton's words, describing Leviathan:
"Him haply slumb'ring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-foundered Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Seamen tell,
With fixed Anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and Wished Morn delays..."
He has conflated many stories here but his poetic genius is such that he leaves the stories "better than he found them," so to speak. One source that may underlie his story is the "Story of Sindbad the Sailor," incorporated in The Thousand and one Nights. In the account of his First Voyage, Sindbad and fellow travellers had arrived at an island covered with trees; the master brought the ship to anchor, and all landed and prepared a fire. Then, the master suddenly shouted to the passengers to embark in haste, because the apparent island was really a fish. Some made it safely to the sea, while others drowned.
Thus, in the space of a few lines, Milton has not only given us some interesting scraps of knowledge of which most would be ignorant (that Typhon, for example, was connected with a cave in Tarsus), but has made reference to fables at the time circulating regarding the humongous size of some sea creatures. But rather than just calling these creatures "large fish," he identifies one with Leviathan, the biblical creature.
But what he does with this story is illuminating. He has the pilot of the bark (it is a "small night-foundered Skiff") plunge the anchor "in his scaly rind" and rest. There is no reaction from the beast in Milton's story. The pilot only looks for a place to rest "while Night/ Invests the Sea." Again, Milton's careful use of language arrests us. We use the word "invest" today primarily to mean "To employ (money" in the purchase of anything from which interest or profit is expected; now, esp. in the purchase of property, stock, shares, etc..." but that is only definition 9a in the OED. Almost all the earlier ones look at it as meaning "to clothe, robe or envelop (a person) in or with a garment; to dress or adorn." Night, here, "clothes" the sea as a garment covers a person.
Conclusion--A Word About Theology
After making this three-fold literary journey, Milton returns, to the description of Satan. Lines 209-10 say:
"So stretched out huge in length, the Arch-fiend lay/ Chained on the burning lake..."
We, as it were, "left" Satan on the lake back in line 191, and now we have come back to him. But before he "steers his flight" (225) to the land, on which he will then rest (I guess the chain that holds him is a loose one, sort of like a long leash for a dog), Milton drops in some theological thoughts about the real freedom Satan enjoys. After all, we have been regaled for more than 100 lines by Satan about how he plans to regroup his forces and launch a raid against God. We have also learned that Satan felt that God narrowly eked out a victory in their war against each other. Milton now has to "set the record straight" by declaring the real freedom that Satan enjoys. In fact, Satan is chained to the burning lake, though with enough freedom to negotiate over to the seared land in Hell, but Satan's apparent freedom isn't real freedom. Every time he lifts his head it is because of the "will and high permission of all-ruling Heaven," 211-12. Indeed, it will be Satan's malice that will serve "to bring forth/ Infinite goodness," 217-18.
We are, after all, reading the work of a Purtian-inclined person, however learned. Milton may explore some themes that a strictly orthodox theologian wouldn't adopt, but he isn't strictly a theologian. He is a poet with strong theological underpinnings. But the mythology of the Greeks, the stories of the Hebrew Bible, and the legends and stories of explorers all inform his presentation of Satan in these lines. Yet it is a Satan firmly under the divine control. Never for a moment does Milton doubt God's ultimate sovereign power over this creature. Thus, even though I may, as it were, be walking through Milton "one step at a time," as if crossing the country on foot, I will never really discover his doubt of the truth of traditional theology. As he told us at the beginning, he will be justifying the ways of God to man. He isn't trying to reconstruct the Christian tradition.
But his imagery, precision, and digressions, along with his unerring ability to return directly to the thought that got him "diverted," is a lesson to all of us who would write. We have far to go to catch you, blind seer.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long