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24. Moving to the Fiery Plain, Second Essay
Paradise Lost I. 211-241
Had ris'n or heav'd his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought [ 215 ]
Evil to others, and enrag'd might see
How all his malice serv'd but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shewn
On Man by him seduc't, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour'd. [ 220 ]
Forthwith upright he rears from off the Pool
His mighty Stature; on each hand the flames
Drivn backward slope thir pointing spires, and rowld
In billows, leave i'th' midst a horrid Vale.
Then with expanded wings he stears his flight [ 225 ]
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky Air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry Land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn'd
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire;
And such appear'd in hue, as when the force [ 230 ]
Of subterranean wind transports a Hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shatter'd side
Of thundring Ætna, whose combustible
And fewel'd entrals thence conceiving Fire,
Sublim'd with Mineral fury, aid the Winds, [ 235 ]
And leave a singed bottom all involv'd
With stench and smoak: Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet. Him followed his next Mate,
Both glorying to have scap't the Stygian flood
As Gods, and by thir own recover'd strength, [ 240 ]
Not by the sufferance of supernal Power.
This essay examines the theological interlude from 211-220 and the second simile of this passage, from 221-241. Satan is still chained on the burning lake (210--Milton never tells us how the chain actually is secured or who secured him there...), and before Milton describes Satan's movement to the plain, he wants to limn the theological "space" in which Satan operates.
The Theological Reality of Satan's Condition--I.211-220
Satan's space is, in a word, powerfully circumscribed by the sovereignty of God. Milton makes two points here, points that really are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. First, the Father lets Satan act "at large" to pursue his own designs, but these designs only "heap on himself damnation" (215). Second, Satan's evil designs, rather than destroying the object of his wrath, bring "Infinite goodness, grace and mercy" on humans (218-19). Thus, Satan is doubly foiled. By trying to destroy another, he only hurts himself and gives God an occasion to demonstrate more mercy to humans.
Both these ideas were discussed in Milton's Treatise on Christian Doctrine, only discovered in 1823, but now published in a relatively new (1973) edition. In ch. viii, on the Providence of God, Milton speaks of the first subject. Though he recognizes that the idea belongs in his discussion of sin, he says:
"that even in the matter of sin God's providence finds its exercise not only in permitting its existence or in withdrawing his grace, but also in impelling sinners to the commission of sin, in hardening their hearts, and in blinding their understandings."
Sounds like what God is doing to Satan here-- "that with reiterated crimes he might/ Heap on himself damnation, while he sought/ Evil to others" (214-16). The ideas aren't identical, but they are pretty close.
Then, seven pages later in his Treatise, and still in the same chapter, Milton addresses the second point:
"The other position, that God eventually converts every evil deed into an instrument of good, contrary to the expectation of sinners, and overcomes evil with good, is sufficiently illustrated..."
This is exactly what God does; "all his [i.e., Satan's] malice serv'd but to bring forth/ Infinite goodness, grace and mercy shown" (217-18). Satan has already speculated that this was the way God acts in I.162. Thus, the very conversations and reflections in PL, conversations and reflections that seem either so random or unique to that text, are often not simply adumbrated, but fully laid out in the Treatise on Christian Doctrine, other works Milton read, or the rough and tumble of English politics during the Civil War.
Returning to Satan--This Time He is On The Move (221-241)
Enough description of bulk. Enough theology. Let's get to the actual movement of Satan onto the fiery plain. The description in these lines is breathtakingly visual, with one of the lines, in my judgment, being among the most powerful visual images in PL. Let's get right to that line, and then see how the simile "works" for Milton here. Satan will need to rise off the fiery lake and fly over onto the plain. This action will be attended with all kinds of sparks and flames, and the impact on landing will be immense. So, Satan rears up, ready to hurl himself onto the plain. The text has (222-24):
"on each hand the flames
Driv'n backward slope their pointing spires, and roll'd
In billows, leave i' th' midst a horrid Vale."
We see, in our mind's eye, a huge rearing creature, covered with flames licking upward, but which are driven backwards as their tips point downward (as Satan raises his arms), and then they billow and roll out of control. A towering inferno of a living, though Satanic, creature results.
So, Satan leaps aloft, and the dusky air felt an "unusual weight" until Satan landed on the solid ground. The lively picture Milton has drawn has three possible points of comparison for any simile that might follow. First, he might be interested in comparing Satan's movement from lake of fire to fiery plain. Second, he could compare the hole left in the abandoned lake of fire with other abandoned holes. Finally, he could stress the impact or the new location where Satan finds himself. And, depending on what kind of raw material (i.e., textual traditions) are available to you, you adjust your similes accordingly. I think that Milton hasn't clearly thought through the options open to him. Rather, his text describes the movement of Satan from lake to plain, while the arresting textual material available to him focuses more on the gaping hole left behind. Thus, as in the first instance, we will have a simile that doesn't quite "work" here.
Let's illustrate by looking at the movement of the action. Satan does three things in these lines: he rears, he steers (his flight), and he appears on land (i.e., alights). It is all movement, and we are caught up in wonder at the tremendous energy, flame, and bulky movement of the Arch-fiend. But then, after Milton describes this movement, he begins his simile in line 230. As editor Merritt Hughes says about the simile,
"The lines recall Virgil's picture of Mt. Aetna darkening the peninsula of Pelorus in Sicily with its smoke and Ovid's account of the rending of Sicily from Italy by winds bursting out of the earth."
Perhaps Milton had observed the scene when he was in Italy in the late 1630s. Milton also had material lying at the ready to describe the movement of smoke, winds and rock. But that isn't ultimately where Milton wanted to go. As lines 234-237 show, he is ultimately interested in the hole left behind and in the combustion, color, stench and smoke in that gaping fissure. Thus, even though his simile seemed to work for a few lines, it ultimately falters, because the text describes movement, while the simile captures the horrid vale left behind.
To show that Milton's simile doesn't fully work, let's turn to the line where the simile ends and the text resumes. He says (237-38):
"Such resting found the sole
Of unblest feet"
We are talking about the placed landed, while the simile just completed talks about the place abandoned.
Thus, Milton's pictures, while painted clearly, have not fully yet been integrated with his similes. Yet, we now have Satan on the fiery plain, ready to speak to Beelzebub and then, eventually, to the other Rebel Angels.