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22. Satan Responds, Second Essay
Paradise Lost 1.169-191
But see the angry Victor hath recall'd
His Ministers of vengeance and pursuit [ 170 ]
Back to the Gates of Heav'n: The Sulphurous Hail
Shot after us in storm, oreblown hath laid
The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice
Of Heav'n receiv'd us falling, and the Thunder,
Wing'd with red Lightning and impetuous rage, [ 175 ]
Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now
To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
Let us not slip th' occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe.
Seest thou yon dreary Plain, forlorn and wilde, [ 180 ]
The seat of desolation, voyd of light,
Save what the glimmering of these livid flames
Casts pale and dreadful? Thither let us tend
From off the tossing of these fiery waves,
There rest, if any rest can harbour there, [ 185 ]
And reassembling our afflicted Powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.
This essay completes my reflections on Satan's words in I.156-191 in response to Beelzebub.
Now Is The Time (169-179)
Satan's character is now taking on a more full and complete form for us. In I.84-124 we saw him as a defiant, proud, grieving Rebel Angel; he was a vigorous speaker but rather uni-dimensional. In I.155-191 nuance enters in; Satan shows his ability to win over a subordinate who is also a potential opponent (Beelzebub); he articulates a philosophy of opposition; and in this essay I will show he reinterprets or redefines reality in a way that supports his view that now is the time for action, either by "force or guile" (121).
The item that captures his attention is the apparent divine recall of the heavenly "Ministers of vengeance" which had been sent out after the falling Rebel Angels in order to harass them in Hell (169-179). In seven rather remarkable lines, Satan describes the dissipation of the "Sulphurous Hail" that was shot after them by God, how it overlaid the "fiery Surge," but how the "Thunder, Wing'd with red Lightning" had now ceased to "bellow through the vast and boundless Deep" (171-177). In other words, all the signs of war and oppression have stopped. Not only has the oppression stopped, but God seems to have "recalled" all messengers back to Heaven. What does that mean for Satan? It provides an opportunity for action (178-79):
"Let us not slip th' occasion, whether scorn,
Or satiate fury yield it from our Foe"
I can just hear a professor of leadership theory droning on. "Great leaders seize an opportunity when it is presented." Well, Satan is saying the same thing. An occasion has been provided, a small window presents itself. We don't know if God feels he has so triumphed over the Rebel Angels so as to look at them with scorn or that finally his terrible swift sword has dripped with enough blood to fill all of God's bloodlust. We do know, according to Satan, that now is the time for action.
But has Satan accurately described the current "lay of the land?" There is reason to believe he hasn't, a point noted as early in PL criticism as 1732 (by Dr. Richard Bentley). Later in PL, when the angel Raphael recounts that terrible battle in Heaven, he presents the loyal angels standing still while the Messiah alone expelled the Rebel Angels (VI. 880-84).
"Sole victor from th' expulsion of his foes
Messiah his triumphal chariot turn'd:
To meet him all his Saints, who silent stood
Eye-witnesses of his almighty acts,
With jubilee advanced"
Well, there is much more to add, but suffice it to say that there are other passages that make it seem like the Rebel Angels, in their fall, were oppressed and pursued. The overall sense is that the chaos attendant on the battle was so great, with "wild anarchy" and "huge rout" (VI. 873), that the defeated angels might easily interpret the din, confusion, pain, flight, thunder, as additional divine pursuit. But Satan has simplified the situation, laying out an interpretive grid that will help him motivate the "troops." He interprets the relative silence now as a sign that the divine forces have retreated. It could be that they never completely pursued the Rebel Angels in the first place. It might just have taken weeks for the "air to clear," something that New York City residents who experienced the traumatic aftermath of the 9/11 bombings can affirm.
But Satan has absolute clarity now. God's forces have retreated, thus producing a window of opportunity for the demonic response. He doesn't say that this means that God is weak or worried about his position; he simply points to the withdrawal of the divine troops. Sometimes, as when the French withdrew from Viet Nam in 1954, it meant that they simply weren't able to or desirous of holding far-flung colonial dominions. Maybe that is what is happening now. Perhaps God has overextended himself and has to withdraw. Whatever the facts of the case, it presents an opportunity to respond.
Planning the Movement to the Fiery Plain (180-191)
But in order to put into effect whatever audacious plan might be cooking in Satan's mind, they have to go where the other Rebel Angels are--prostrate on the fiery plain. It is not as if the plain is a resort village. It is "The seat of desolation, void of light" (181). Well, there are the faintest glimmerings of light, livid (bluish) flames, probably a result of the remnants of "Sulphurous Hail" that had recently been falling. They decide to head to the plain. But even before they begin to move we are caught up in Milton's language to describe the move. They intend to go "from off the tossing of
these fiery waves" (184).
Repeat that line a few times aloud and you will be "tossed" with the waves.
"From OFF the TOSS ing OF these FIER y WAVES."
Up and down go the waves, carrying with them Satan and Beelzebub. I'm getting seasick now. They seek a calmer situation, even if it still is characterized by fire all around. So, their goal is to: "There rest, if any rest can harbor there" (185).
The line is reminiscent of Shakespeare, in Richard II: "Here let us rest, if this rebellious earth/ Have any resting for her true king's queen," V.1.5-6. Rest as verb, followed by rest/ing as noun. It is an effective instance of polyptoton, the multiple appearances of the same word in different forms, even though the original technical definition of polyptoton was when the same noun appeared in different cases ("poly"--many; "ptosis"--falling, or falling off of the noun from the nominative case into other cases).
Conclusion--The Need for Consultation
The decision to go against Heaven in some yet undefined way is one that can only be made by the assembled multitude of fallen angels. They thus need to reassemble their "afflicted Powers," gather up the lessons of war, and then decide how to "overcome this dire calamity." It may be that all they can do is gain "resolution from despair," but not if Satan has anything to say about it.
I end with a note about the language from 186-191. As I read and re-read the lines, I had to think that these lines, too, arise from Milton's experience listening to political speeches in the 1640s-1650s. After some early Puritan/Parliamentary defeats at the hand of the Royalists, they had to "re-assemble" their "afflicted Powers." They had to "consult how" they might "henceforth most offend" the enemy. I can almost hear one of their politicians stress how they had to "repair" their losses and so "overcome" the "dire calamity" of defeat. Every word, then, drips with the throbbing reality of the English Civil War.
And this leads to my final mini-point. Milton spent all his life, until 1639, in study and travel. He was a poet and wanted to be a poet. But his life was "interrupted" in the decade of the 1640s by ecclesiastical, political and personal (divorce) disasters, about which he wrote. Then, in the 1650s, he had to defend a regicide and deal with his blindness, a blow much more severe for hopes of personal creativity in those days than in ours. He must have wondered in the 1650s whether he would ever return to his blessed poetry. And then, with the Restoration in 1660, he had to worry for his life. Yet, somehow he survived and had time to write. And, surprise, surprise, even though he was working on classical and biblical themes, he found the two decades of political life not simply useful to his designs in PL, but absolutely crucial to their success. Which just goes to show; all of life is useful. All of it.