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16. Rise And Shine, First Essay
Satan's First Speech in PL 1.84-124
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?
If the previous essay described an oppressive situation in Hell, this will focus on an oppressed Satan and Beelzebub in Hell. The speech begins with their confusion and rises to confidence but because the confidence emerges from pride, it will end up being self-deceptive. This kind of self-deceptive confidence ultimately misconstrues the nature of Satan's own assault on God and the possibilities for future reprisal. It is almost as if Satan is in a feverish fit when he utters this speech; he can't see reality clearly, and so he makes vaunts and boasts that were the source of his downfall. in the first place. The clearest of these erroneous vaunts is in lines 104-105, where Satan says:
"In dubious (i.e., of doubtful outcome) Battle on the Plains of Heav'n/ And shook his throne."
Satan is describing to his companion in suffering, Beelzebub, the results of the battle against God. He is, as it were, saying, 'Look Beelz, we almost defeated God. It was nip and tuck for a while. We shook his throne. If it weren't for his "dire Arms" (94), a power that I really didn't count on...we would be sitting pretty now. We would have even won!' But what really happened during that war in Heaven was that everything except the throne of God was shaken. Later in the epic we have (VI. 832-34):
"under his (the Son's) burning Wheels
The steadfast Empyrean shook throughout
All but the throne of God."
So, Satan has it completely backwards. He didn't shake the throne of God. He is self-deluded, and self-delusion is one of the byproducts of pride. But let's describe Satan here, and then look at other features of this remarkable speech.
Satan has often been described as the "tragic hero" or even the most interesting and alluringly attractive figure in PL. His defiance of the Almighty in 1.105-108, quoted by Winston Churchill to rally his countrymen after the disaster at Dunkirk in WWII, has contributed to a romanticized view of Satan as the ultimate holdout or perseverer, the one of whom the late Jim Valvano (basketball coach at North Carolina State until he succumbed to cancer in 1993) could have been proud ("Never give up! Failure and rejection are only the first step to succeeding.."). Yet, as you look at Satan in this speech, the words bold and impetuous don't really come to mind. Rather I see the following: pride, envy, confusion, despair, wistfulness, impenitence, obstinacy. Add to this a large dose of self-deception which manifests itself in a misconception of reality. Add to this a resultant theological error that assigns to Fate things that Satan knows are the purview of God (116). Pride has so blinded Satan, so distorted his mental vision, that he can't really assess either where he is or what his future prospects for success are. He, like the biblical fool of Proverbs, seems incapable of learning anything. His pride continues to bubble, and its froth covers his eyes with a film of blindness and darkness.
Granted, Milton has drawn upon his picture of Satan here from Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, a play which portrayed that fire-giving semi-divine figure as a lonely, heroic sufferer. Granted, he has probably also drawn on the anti-monarchic rhetoric swirling around in the 1640s-1660s in describing God's rule as a "Tyranny" (124). But Satan's perspectives are so "off" and his judgment so impaired that even his words of defiance, quoted so powerfully by Churchill, dissolve like ashes in his mouth. Thus, even if Satan is an interesting character, one who feeds on revenge like babies do their mother's milk, he dosn't strike me as a particularly enviable or attractive figure.
Four Points from the Beginning of the Speech: 1.84-90
The first word spoken by a character, Satan, in PL is "If.." (84). It is highly ironic, and not a little humorous, that this mighty creature, this one who raised himself up to try to equal God, this commander of thousands of the heavenly host, has to feel his way tentatively in the depths of Hell and begin with the little word "if." And, as you note, there is no "then," that follows. It isn't as if he will say, 'If this is our condition, then this is what we will do.' Rather than being the bold general, he is a timorous groper after the most basic knowledge. "If thou beest he..." are his first words directed towards Beelzebub. What is he doing? He can't discern if Beelzebub is beside him either because the gloom is too deep or his companion's features have been so terribly altered. The opening four words thus begin to probe the issue of identity, a crucial one for those who plan another revolt against God. Who are they to do it?
Then, note the rest of the first line of his speech. "But O how fall'n! how chang'd" (84). I look at these words as significant because Satan is quickly moving from a theological to a neutral physical description or interpretation of his companion. If he says "How fall'n!" it is easy to construe this as a judgment--how we are fallen from grace; how we have fallen into judgment, etc. But that is God's way of construing the world and Satan knows, almost better than anyone else, that you control your world first of all by putting your names and your words on your experiences. Satan has unwittingly adopted a "divine" view of the matter. So, he quickly changes that to "How chang'd." Yes, indeed, that is much better. Beelzebub's visage is altered, changed, and not fallen. And, as all the relational coaches of the twenty-first century tell us, "change is good..." Right. In any case, we have a changed countenance. That in and of itself isn't bad.
The third thing to note from the initial lines is the use of diplomatic language to describe the contrast between the former light and the present condition (ruin) of the Rebel Angels. That is, words like "mutual league" and "united thoughts and counsels" and "equal hope" (88-89) are taken from the world of diplomats and international relations. Milton was awash with this type of language when he served as Secretary for International Correspondence to the Commonwealth government in the early 1650s. Thus, I am sure he had those phrases ringing in his ears for years; now he can deftly use them to describe Satan's effort with his co-conspirators.
Finally, the image of the former condition of Beelzebub residing in light is impressive. Those earlier days were in the "happy Realms of Light." Beelzebub was "Cloth'd with transcendent brightness" and thereby outshone "Myriads though bright" (85-87). Maybe this is true; maybe this is an example of Satan's brilliant rhetoric needed by him as Commander in Chief to motivate his compatriots to war. In any case, we have a kind of confusion and wistful longing in the first eight or so lines of the speech. Then, it will all change--beginning with the words "yet not for those" in line 94.
The next essay considers I.94-124.