(to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)
2. Paradise Lost T-Shirts
Starting with Some Humor
It is usually best, when embarking on the study of a ponderous classic, to begin with humor. Humor gives us an angled way to look at what otherwise might seem a dizzying, dazzling and daunting collection of words and images. As I was studying Book I, I came upon a number of suggestive, picture-giving phrases that not only give insight into the passage in which they appear, but also let us pause and think, dream, smile and fill our mind with the thick worlds of Hell (and sometimes Heaven). These essay describes two phrases I would love to see on T-shirts, though many more could be identified. My idea is that the heart of the T-shirt would be a picture of the action described in the words, and that the words would then appear below, with appropriate citation.
First T-Shirt--I.45, "Hurl'd headlong flaming"
Milton first provides a quick review of heavenly history, in I.27-51, before landing us in Hell with Satan and his minions, where the main action of Book I takes place. He does this with incredible efficiency in these 25 lines, working backwards in history from the Fall of Adam and Eve, to the One who deceived them, to the reason why there was One lurking around earth to deceive them (i.e., a heavenly revolt), to the reason for the angelic revolt in Heaven (pride--line 36). Once we move backwards in time, we are then brought forward a little in history and left with Satan and his "horrid crew" in Hell, before the Fall of humans. Then, as it were, action slows to a crawl, as we join the party in Hell. So, the first 51 lines of PL, with the hugely compact Introduction and the backward winding, and then (little) forward winding section from 27-51, then prepare us for the rest of the story. Most people either become so afraid of Milton through the first 51 lines that they don't go on, or they skip these lines, because they don't know exactly what he is doing, and so the pleasure of these lines is lost. But this T-shirt will help us focus on one aspect of the story from 27-51--the punishment for the heavenly revolt of the Rebel Angels.
In a word, God tossed them out. My next Milton T-shirt will give more flavor to this tossing, but this one (I.45) captures in only three words the speed, intensity and decisiveness of that tossing.
"Him the Almighty (God) "Hurl'd headlong flaming."
Can't you see it? A blazing Satan, with flames pointing in spires from his sides and head, heading down, down, down. How would you depict his facial expression? Defiant? Desperate? Scared? Blank? Why the flames? Because he was going so fast? Because he "caught fire" in the Heavenly combat? Say the words several times, "Hurl'd headlong flaming," and think of a variety of life situations where they are useful--when the boss comes down on someone? when you discard someone from your life? When you or someone else "crashes and burns?" Other examples?
Second T-Shirt--I.740-42 Imagine Mulciber Falling
This would be a complement to the first T-shirt, and perhaps might even be on the back of it. It isn't a direct quotation from PL, but it captures an event vividly portrayed by Milton. We are near the end of Book I with this incident. Satan has rallied his troops, inspiriting them with energy to build their city in Hell. Called "Pandemonium" (the first coinage of the term), it is the stately and huge "high Capital of Satan and his Peers" (756-57). But someone needed to build all this and, indeed, the builder of Hell was an unnamed demigod. He was caught up in the rebellion, too, and would later be thrown out of Heaven with Satan and his other minions. The Bible hints at this. We don't know the names of the original revolutionaries (Milton tells us that their names were "blotted out and raz'd by their Rebellion"--I.362-63), but after being thrown out of Heaven, they assumed names of various pagan deities which would continue to harass the people of God. Pagan deities for 1000 years of Christian apologists were nothing more than "demons." So, this original builder, whose name is lost to us, later took on the name of Mulciber (Greek Hephaestus; Latin also Vulcan). The story of his "fall from heaven" is briefly described in Iliad 1.591-95. So, Homer has only told a "shadow" of the "true" story. His epic inspiration only got him part way there, though he was the most eloquent of the pagans. Thus, in good epic form Milton feels he also has to make mention of Mulciber's history. It is merely an "echo" or "shadow" of the drama portrayed in Christian theology but since he quotes Homer, he speaks of the fall of this heavenly creature, called Vulcan in Book I of the Iliad. Satan was "hurl'd headlong flaming" from Heaven in 1.45; here we focus here on a different way that Mulciber fell.
Here the slower, almost lazy, character of Mulciber's fall is stressed. At first he he thrown (742)
"Sheer o'er the crystal Battlements"
in Heaven, which means he was tossed with vigor and energy over the castle-like walls of Heaven. "Sheer" in Milton means "completely, absolutely, altogether, quite." Standing behind it is the familiar Greek epic word aipus, Odyssey 1.11 (and 50 other places in Homer), referring in 1.11 to the "steep" or "absolute" destruction faced by many Greeks in Troy. Back to Mulciber. He fell, and fell, and fell. Down and down he goes, all day long until he reaches the zenith and then he drops down like a falling star. So, the picture of his flaming is preserved, but here we s-t-r-e-t-c-h out the fall, which took a day.
Milton's telling of Mulciber's Fall continues with lines 742-44,
"from Morn to Noon he fell, from Noon to dewy Eve, A Summer's Day."
These lines gives us pause and encouragement to imagine the slower, yet no less "flaming" Fall of Mulciber. What was he thinking during his long day's fall? How fast did he fall? Was the wind screaming by his ears? And, when he dropped from the zenith like a falling star on Lemnos, how was he welcomed by the bewildered inhabitants?
Now you see how we not only can get T-shirts from Book I of PL, but we can encourage the imagination and, at the same time, help us slow down to understand the intensity of the narrative that lies behind Milton's often stately poetry. And, if for no other reason, allowing students to make T-shirts will help them never forget PL.