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29. Numbers and Names, First Essay
Paradise Lost I.338-365
They heard, and were abasht, and up they sprung
Upon the wing, as when men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake.
Nor did they not perceave the evil plight [ 335 ]
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel;
Yet to thir Generals Voyce they soon obeyd
Innumerable. As when the potent Rod
Of Amrams Son in Egypts evill day
Wav'd round the Coast, up call'd a pitchy cloud [ 340 ]
Of Locusts, warping on the Eastern Wind,
That ore the Realm of impious Pharaoh hung
Like Night, and darken'd all the Land of Nile:
So numberless were those bad Angels seen
Hovering on wing under the Cope of Hell [ 345 ]
'Twixt upper, nether, and surrounding Fires;
Till, as a signal giv'n, th' uplifted Spear
Of thir great Sultan waving to direct
Thir course, in even ballance down they light
On the firm brimstone, and fill all the Plain; [ 350 ]
A multitude, like which the populous North
Pour'd never from her frozen loyns, to pass
Rhene or the Danaw, when her barbarous Sons
Came like a Deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibralter to the Lybian sands. [ 355 ]
Forthwith from every Squadron and each Band
The Heads and Leaders thither hast where stood
Thir great Commander; Godlike shapes and forms
Excelling human, Princely Dignities,
And Powers that earst in Heaven sat on Thrones; [ 360 ]
The Rebel Angels, humiliated, leapt up at Satan's chiding and were ready for his orders. Milton stresses their number rather than the bleakness of their surroundings, and the word "innumerable" (338) resounds echoing. While we are letting the word sink into our minds, Milton helps us by giving us a simile of innumerability. Perhaps the Book of Exodus was on his mind because of the simile with sedge and the Red Sea (304-11); in any case, he draws upon the story of the plague of locusts from Exodus 10 to give us a picture of the swarming host of Rebel Angels. In that passage, Pharaoh has once again shown his intransigence, and God tells Moses about the plague to come. Here are the relevant verses, from the King James Bible (Exodus 10:12-15):
"And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts. And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt, and rested in all the coasts of Egypt; very grievous were they; before them there were no such locusts as they, neither after them shall be such. For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left"
What is striking to me about Milton's simile in I.338-343 is how he both improves or makes more succinct the Biblical story and how he draws on so many details of the story. He isn't just making an allusion to the plague; he is letting the very marrow of the biblical text shape his words. Note the correspondences:
1) He calls Moses "Amram's Son" (338), which is correct but is certain to confuse modern-day readers, for whom the Bible is generally a closed book. Yet, he notes the name, as does the blblical account.
2) It is the "potent Rod" of Moses which is waved; the Bible has "stretched forth his rod."
3) Milton says that Moses "Wav'd [the rod] round the Coast" and "up call'd" the cloud of locusts. The Biblical text talks about an east wind rising to bring the locusts. Since the east is the only direction of the coast, we have a nice poetic similarity. The Bible mentions that when the locusts came, they gathered on the coasts as well.
4) Milton tells us it was a "pitchy cloud" of locusts; the Bible says that the locusts "darkened" the land. Same idea.
5) Milton uses the vivid phrase, to describe the coming of the locusts, "warping on the Eastern Wind" (341). The OED uses this reference as an illustration of the 27th (!) usage of "warp"--which means "to float or whirl through the air." Milton uses a beautiful word to capture the "windblown" nature of a locust plague. It isn't as if locusts are hawks, dive-bombing for their prey. They are at the mercy of the winds. All the Bible says is that the "east wind brought the locusts." I think we have a Miltonic improvement on the text. We see the pitchy cloud of locusts in a warped shape, like a frisbee going through the air, coming towards Egypt.
6) Again, Milton mentions how they hung "Like Night" and "darken'd all the Land of Nile" (343), which we have already noted in the biblical account.
Milton makes three reference to the darkness or night that the cloud of locusts brings because that is the element of the story that relates to innumerability. The story also emphasizes the destructive nature of the locusts (a point brought out in Joel 1 and other biblical passages dealing with locusts), but that isn't Milton's interest. Thus, we see that Milton is a very precise and selective (for his interest) reader of the Bible. He has not only mastered the details of passages, but he has so long meditated on these details that he can combine them in pungent ways that make the biblical story more vivid than it actually is. No small achievement. The implication of this for me is that any competent interpreter of PL must be at least as familiar with the Bible as Milton was.
For example, if we really knew the Bible well, we might ask why Milton has chosen this particular swarming thing to stress when two chapters earlier we had a "swarm" of flies that filled the land (Exodus 8:21-24). This sunk deeply into the consciousness of Israel because reference to this same swarm of flies was picked up in a historical Psalm (Psalm 78:45). Or, alternatively, he might have picked up on swarms of fish (Genesis 1:20) that filled the seas. This would emphasize innumerability. But there is something about the darkness of the cloud of locusts and their hovering quality that probably made that image appealing to Milton. The point I make, however, is that we need not look at Milton's use of the Bible simply as an exercise in discovering which verses Milton used and then figuring out how he used them. It also might be good to consider what images were at his disposal; thus we might get clearer insight into why he chose the particular image he did. At least, it makes us think...
On the Way to One More Simile
Milton is relentless in his use of similes in this part of Book I. But before we get to the next one, let's point out how he makes the transition between similies. Both the simile just described and the next one (next essay) pick up on the huge number of Rebel Angels but Milton doesn't just go from one simile to another as he had done with the thickness of the autumnal leaves or sedge about 40 lines earlier. Here he drops in two or three additional things; i.e., the Angels hovering under the "Cope" or vault of Hell, the mention of the surrounding fires (as had been mentioned in I.61-62), the "up-down" movement of lines 347-48, and, finally, the well-regimented nature of the bad Angels. I earlier noted the "down-up-down" movement of the Vallombrosa simile (302-04); here we have Moses uplifted Spear serving to "direct/ Thir course, in even balance down they light" (348-49).
But Milton has one more simile to give before shifting his interest from the number of the Rebel Angels to their names. The names will then take us through the next large section of PL. Let's see, in the next essay how he makes that transition.