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23. Moving to the Fiery Plain, First Essay
Paradise Lost 1.192-241
Thus Satan talking to his neerest Mate
With Head up-lift above the wave, and Eyes
That sparkling blaz'd, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood, extended long and large [ 195 ]
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the Fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr'd on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast [ 200 ]
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' Ocean stream:
Him haply slumbring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder'd Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Sea-men tell, [ 205 ]
With fixed Anchor in his skaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delayes:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain'd on the burning Lake, nor ever thence [ 210 ]
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will. . .
This passage, which descrbes the movement of Satan and Beelzebub from the lake of fire to the fiery plain to join their compatriots in revolt, introduces the first two of Milton's many similes in PL. Epic similes are extended comparisons between the subject described and an object in nature. Usually when a person speaks or writes on Miltonic similes, s/he picks much more familiar and famous ones, such as the "Autumnal Leaves" at Vallombrosa or the "Optic Glass" of the Tuscan Artist (I. 290-310) to exposit. But I think there is virtue in looking closely at the first two of Milton's similes, regarding Satan's bulk and the hole left behind after his movement from the lake of fire, principally because these similes don't really work very well for Milton. Or, to put it differently, they are not as precisely and effectively drawn as later similes. Therefore, before trying to speculate on the heady topic of the "meaning" of Milton's similes, let's first make sure we understand some of their mechanics.
Dividing the Section; Part I and the First Simile
The section consists of three parts: (1) the comparison of Satan's bulk to huge mythological creatures (192-211); (2) a theological interlude (211-220); and (3) a dramatic description of the movement of Satan onto the fiery plain (221-241).
Milton in his blindness now paints such a clear picture of Satan that I almost believe that his word is worth a thousand pictures. Satan begins to move across the fiery lake (193-95):
"With head uplift above the waves, and Eyes
that sparkling blaz'd, his other Parts besides
Prone on the Flood"
Can't you just see his enormous frame, pillowed out as it covers a vast reach of the infernal lake but with his head lifted out of the surging fire as he swims along? Is he afraid of drowning? Looking to see what he can actually see? Milton has borrowed from Spenser's Faerie Queene in this description (I.xi.14):
"His blazing eyes, like two bright shining shields,
Did burn with wrath, and sparkled living fire"
Well, how large is Satan? Milton says that he lay floating "many a rood." Commentators say that a "rood" is about 1/4 acre, though the Century Dictionary says that the rood represents "various" measures. Well, to be more specific, he compares it in bulk to some great mythological monsters. Here is where our simile begins, and here is where some confusion enters.
The first problem concerns the number of creatures with whom Milton is comparing Satan. The lines say (198-200):
"Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr'd on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den
By ancient Tarsus held"
Is this two, three, or four creatures? Presumably, in Milton's mind, Briareos and Typhon are distinct. Hesiod, in his Theogony, speaks of the former as a son of Earth and Heaven who, along with his brothers Cottus and Gyes, had 100 arms and "fifty heads upon his shoulders on their strong limbs," 147-153. The description of Typhon appears later. Also called Typhoeus, he was born to Earth and Tartarus. Note Hesiod's description (822-27):
"From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared"
So, we have a lot of heads and hands here, but Milton seems to want only to compare Satan with their size. Other ancient sources describe Typhoeus having an upper half reaching as high as the stars.
But what does Milton mean by "Titania, or Earth-born"? Is he trying to describe the Titans and the Giants as types of huge creatures, or does he have specific ones in mind? Are those specific ones "Briareos" and "Typhon" of the next line? Well, I don't know. And Milton doesn't resolve the issue, because he immediately goes on to compare Satan in bulk to Leviathan. This biblical creature is most completely described in Job 41, but is also present in the Psalms (104) and Isaiah (27). We don't get a clear picture of him, though he is described as like a crocodile in Job 41. This will cause a bit of a problem for Milton in his simile that follows from 202-210, because the creature is likened to some huge creature "slumb'ring on the Norway foam" (203). Crocodiles don't swim that far north.
But Milton had another source he felt he had to/wanted to use as he continues his simile: Olaus Magnus' fascinating 1555 book Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), where he tells previously unknown stories about Scandanavian people. Among these stories are those of sea pilots who have mistakenly let down their anchor at night, not realizing that the huge bulk on which they set the anchor is really a living sea monster. Magnus is an interesting figure, and he published his book because he was dissatisfied with the maps in the 1482 printing of Claudius Ptolemy's Geographia (itself more than 1000 years old). Ptolemy, like Aristotle in logic and philosophy, was supposed to have been the authority in geography. But, of course, he wasn't. Magnus saw to it that he stood corrected.
Milton wants to combine at least three things to make his simile "work" here: the giants from Greek mythology (though he confuses, or doesn't clarify, the difference between giants and titans), Leviathan from the Bible, and stories of sailors who set anchor in the "scaly rind" of some great sea monster. Yet, when we think about it for a second, we see that what he really wanted to do was just talk about Satan's size. He has gotten ahead of himself because he had material at his disposal that was just too good to lose. But he did so at the expense of making his simile unclear and not particularly effective.
Two Precious Lines
Lest we think that Milton just "misses the mark" in his simile here, I need to close with reference to two other lines which just make you stop and reflect. Already we have seen Satan's head bobbing above the waves. Now, in line 202, we have Leviathan described as "Created hugest that swim
th' Ocean stream."
Scholars have mentioned that this line doesn't scan easily and, in fact, is difficult to read out loud with fluency. Try it. The clash of sounds in the first two words makes you go slowly. It is almost as if Milton is making the reader "measure" the immensity of Leviathan as we stumble along. Then, the
longest line on the page of my edition, from the sheer length of the words, is 209:
"So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay"
Read it out loud. We have to stretch out the sounds before us, and as we do so, we see splayed out in all of his extent the Arch-fiend, Satan.
Thus, we get a picture of hugeness here, of bulk so large and eyes so sparkling, that it is as if Satan is like a glittering island. References to classical, biblical and historical sources add an interesting touch to the description, but really do not function as a well-disciplined simile. Well, it is Milton's first try; he can only improve...as the next essay will show.