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27. Rallying the Troops, Second Essay
Paradise Lost I.283-330 And Two More Similes
Nathless he so endur'd, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarch't imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm'd [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu'd
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call'd so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded.
Every treatment of Milton's similes deals with the the rich and suggestive image of leaves strewn in the brooks of Vallombrosa (302-04), a valley in Tuscany which Milton probably visited in 1639. He may actually have seen and fixed in his memory the scene described. One wonders about memory's mechanisms: did Milton associate the leaves strewing the brook with Rebel Angels lying in Hell as early as 1639 or, more likely, did he only associate the two together as he combed through the caverns of his memory after blindness had set in and he was composing the epic by night in the late 1650s/early 1660s? It is as if the things we see and somehow record in mind are like floating images yearning for some rich idea with which to connect and give them life. We all have these floating images; how do you use yours?
The Autumnal Leaves (302-04)
Satan, whose immense size we have just been able to infer from the size of his spear, now stands on the shore of the "inflamed sea" and addresses his legions (301). But his words don't begin until line 315. In the mean time, we have two wonderfully suggestive similes, the second of which turns into an exposition of portions of Exodus 14. These similes describe the effect of the fall from Heaven on the scattered Rebel Angels. They lay (302-04):
"Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High over-arch'd imbower"
The image suggests at least three things to me: (1) a movement of "down-up-down"; (2) a flirtation with death; and (3) a three-fold likeness between the Angels and the leaves. A few words about each...
1) Even though we don't see the leaves falling in this simile, we see, first, the leaves on the ground; then we see the trees high over-arch the scene; then we see them described as "imbower"[ing] or forming a covering over the brook. We begin on the ground with leaves, then we are raised to the lofty tops of the trees, and then we see the thing they cover again. The emotional effect of what I call this "down-up-down" literary style is to feel immensely cozy or protected in the bower created by the overarching trees.
2) But even as comfort or coziness is suggested, so the idea of death isn't far off. Note we are in autumn, when the leaves are falling lifeless. Though shot through with rich colors, the leaves are dead. And, they are covered by the "Etrurian shades" (303), or the trees that provide shade. But anyone with some familiarity with epic knows that a "shade" is the wispy presence of one who has died. It is all so Virgilian to use a word like "shades." Perhaps thoughts of Italy, which two of the first three similes touch, also brought to mind the ambiguity of the word "shades."
3) But far richer than these is the three-fold significance of the image. How are the Rebel Angels like the strewn autumnal leaves? First, they are almost infinitely numerous and scattered atop each other in no discernible pattern. The leaves fall wherever the breeze takes them. So the Rebel Angels are scattered. Second, the leaves, like the Rebel Angels, have lost their former glory. Finally, both leaves and Angels float haphazardly on the stream (or lake of fire). I would say that Milton has hit this simile right out of the park.
Not Content With One Home Run--Another Simile
So he continues, after we have already been overwhelmed by the simile of the leaves. Now he likens the Angels to "scatter'd sedge Aflote" (304-05):
"when with fierce winds Orion arm'd
Hath vex'd the Red-Sea coast"
If Milton had stopped here, we would have a vivid picture. The Red Sea, between Africa and Southwest Asia, was also known as the "sedge sea," so thick is that marine plant on the surface of the water. And, when a strong wind blows, the sedge gathers on the shore. The image of "Orion arm'd" comes straight from Virgil, who calls him not only "pale Orion" who brings "wintry rain" (Aeneid VII.719) and "Orion's star" (I.535), but also "bright Orion armed with burnished gold" (III.535). Thus, the "dread power of the elements," as one scholar calls it, is associated with Orion.
But Milton isn't done yet. Waving the Red Sea before Milton is sure to bring up the Scriptural account of the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. Then, from lines 306-311 he is off to the races on that theme. Let's hear his words:
"whose waves o'erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursued
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carcasses
And broken chariot wheels."
Space doesn't permit comment on all interesting points here. Suffice it to say that Busiris was a Pharoah legendary for his inhospitality to foreign guests. Nowhere is the Pharoah of the Exodus named in the Bible; most scholars today see the events of Exodus 1-14 as consistent with the time of Rameses II. Yet Busiris it is. He and the cavalry (chivalry is a nice touch) pursued the Israelites, who had lived in Goshen, a portion of Egypt, with "perfidious hatred." Why perfidious? Because at first, after the plague on the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12), the Pharoah permitted the Israelites freely to leave Egypt. But once the Israelites had left, Pharoah changed his tune and decided to pursue them (Exodus 14). Thus, Milton, in one word, captures the prevaricating attitudes of the Egyptians toward Israel.
But Milton still isn't finished. He has to point out the results of the pharaonic pursuit. And he does so with unexampled clarity-we see bloated bodies bobbing on the water and broken chariot wheels. And, of course, the bodies on the water bring us right back to Hell. Sometimes Milton lets us "escape" from Hell by taking us with Galileo into the realms of science; other times we escape from Hell only to be gently deposited back there after the simile ends. Along the way, however, we are treated to multiplying images, images that pile up much like the Rebel Angels pile up on the shore of the lake of fire.
When we finish these similes we scarce remember that we are in Hell, waiting for Satan to begin to speak to his troops. But now we are called from our own brand of stupefaction, with this last simile, to the reality at hand by the stentorian voice of Satan. He addresses the Angels, and us, ..in the next essay.