Memorizing Paradise Lost II
Bill Long 3/29/08
Ruminating on Book I
By going slowly you also see that Milton has left out or elided words on many occasions. Two examples from the first 100 lines are helpful. When Satan wakes up to the fact that he is in hell, he looks around him and sees Beelzebub, his ally, lying next to him. Milton describes it as follows:
"He soon discerns, and welt'ring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam'd
Not only do these lines force you to learn "welter," but the following line arrests. The phrase "One next himself in power" to describe Beelzebub, is shorthand, of course, for "the one who was next to himself in power." So, poetry contracts. But it also expands, to meet meter (iambic pentameter), as the drawn-out description of Beelzebub's name in the next line shows. It would have sufficed to say "Long after known in Palestine as Beelzebub," but this wouldn't have fit his meter. So he had to add the words "an nam'd" to keep the rhythm clean.
A few lines later, when Satan begins to speak to Beelzebub, he begins,
"If thou beest hee; But O how fall'n! How chang'd....
Very fine. But then, after the description of how changed Beelzebub was from the bright angelic figure that inhabited the Relams of Light, Milton has Satan continue:
"If he whom mutual league,
United thoughs and counsels, equal hope,
And hazard in the Glorious Enterprise,
Join'd with me once, now misery hath join'd
In equal ruin," (I.87-91).
At first the lines seem not to make sense. The "he whom mutual league" in line 87 seems to be floating in outer space. Who is the "He?" Since Satan is directly addressing Beelzebub it seems there must be a third demon involved. But in fact, the words "thou beest" from line 84 are elided (eliminated), and the sense of these bolded lines is, "If thou beest he whom mutual league..join'd with me once...." So, unless you slow down, you aren't going to be able to "hear" Milton. Indeed, I assume that my further study will show places where even if you really slow down, you don't get everything.
Two Arresting Two-Word Phrases
I have said earlier how I love some of Milton's clauses, which I now regularly repeat as I face my day, but two of his two-word phrases in the first 100 lines are so powerful and generative of thought that I can't leave him today without mentioning them. In describing the burning fires in hell and the extreme torment and hopelessness attendant on Satan and his minions, Milton says:
"A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible," (I.61-63).
The phrase is "darkness visible." So powerful and suggestive was this oxymoronic phrase that it became the title of William Styron's self-revelatory study of his struggle with depression: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Milton provides the words even for one of our greatest writers. Then, in describing why Satan fell, why he decided to revolt against God, Milton simply says (I.97-98):
"that fixt mind
And high disdain, from sense of injur'd merit,
Satan has a sense of "injured merit." Again, there is a sort of oxymoronic character in these words. He had merit, to be sure, a luster and shining character that was also possessed by Beelzebub. But his merit was "injured" in some way as yet undisclosed. Rather than having his merit properly recognized, Satan felt that he was "dissed," as we say, or not accorded the proper level of respect by God. Earlier in Book I Milton describes how Satan had felt (I.36-40):
"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 equall'd the most High,"
Satan wanted to set himself above his peers, and even to approximate the glory of God. But the origin of this act of rebellion seemed to come from "injured merit." He was hurt because he wasn't properly regarded in heaven. Whereas the phrase "darkness visible" proved suggestive to Styron as a means for exploring his own psyche, the phrase "injured merit" might be helpful to explore the myriad reactions of people who act out, rebel, refuse to go along, and otherwise lead revolts against the powers that be. If Styron's autobiography could be called "Darkness visible," why couldn't someone else entitle theirs "Injured Merit"? I think we have the beginnings of a best-seller here...
But there is so much more, even in the first 100 lines. I feel almost as if I am a person who is stopping to examine every field, or the land at every milepost in the 600-mile drive from Salem, OR to the San Francisco Bay Area, and who has the privilege of marking how the geography, agriculture, climate, living creatures, scenery and life changes over the course of those 600 miles--but that when I show up in life I am asked to give an 'overview' of my trip, that must be spoken in ten minutes. How do you give an 'overview' when each aspect of the trip taught you something new about life? So it is with Milton. I memorize a few lines a day (I really get to it about five times a week). I try to soak into myself the phrases and thoughts, not letting them go until they bless me, so to speak. There is so much richness there that I feel at times that my soul and mind is being cloyed, being overtaken by too much healthy growth. But then, I have to "return" to earth and sometimes "give an account" of where I have been. Sometimes the request is for the "overview" of where I have been. But usually I can't go there; I am still caught up in the immensely challenging and inviting rhythms of the lines.
So let me close with another of his memorable lines from the first 100 of the epic. You can use many of his descriptions of hell to describe various "hells" in which you find yourself today. Why not describe the oppressiveness of the Oregon rain and continued cold with the following words:
"The Dismal Situation waste and wild," (I.60).
Memorizing Milton and trying to work out and internalize his meaning is certainly a difficult and long task. But, then again, when I look at some other tasks that may confront me in the world, this seems not yto be so burdensome...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long