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42. A Digression on Two Similes
Paradise Lost I.595-620
Before getting to the subject of Satan's inspiriting [new word coinage here!] words to the Fallen Angels in 622-62, I would like to begin with the two similes from I.595-620. Recall that when Satan stood to address the troops, he "Stood like a tow'r" (590) in front of them. Milton then can't help but mention the glory that Satan lost. His original brightness had faded, though he hadn't lost all of it. I love the phrase, describing Satan, "and th' excess/ Of glory obscured," (593-94) which means that only that part of Satan was now occluded or dimmed which would have been "too much" for mortal sight to look upon when he was in his full glory. Heavenly creatures shine with unapproachable light; one can't look on them directly. Thus, in Milton's mind, Satan has lost his preternatural glory, though still he is recognizable as Satan but radiates diminished or partially concealed glory. Milton needs a
simile to help him out now, and he gives us one on sun, clouds and eclipses. It turned out that this became one of his most infamous similes since the Licenser for Charles II initially objected to it as potentially treasonous. Yet it stood, and we have it. Here is the simile describing how Satan stood before the Rebel Angels (594-99):
"as when the sun new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disatrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
We see its controversial nature immediately. Monarchs are "perplexed" when unusual meteorological signs confront them. Seers interpret these signs. From earliest days seers had "predicted" turbulent times based on what they saw in the sky. Thus, was Milton secretly trying to point to turbulent times ahead for the newly-reestablished monarchy? It is easy to see how someone could think so. After all, Milton had been a member of the Puritan party in power after the beheading of Charles I in 1649. He also wrote a defense of the regicide and then went on to be the Corresponding Secretary in the new regime. When the monarchy was re-established in 1660, it was hyper-aware of possible criticism or movements to instability. Thus, the Licensor's objection.
If one just takes a step back from the text and the pressing historical context for a moment, however, one sees his words in question as just the second part of a beautifully-unfolding simile. Satan's glory is obscured and two similes help imagine what still remains--the images of clouds blocking the sun and an eclipse of the sun by the moon.
What amazes me about Milton's simile is how closely one must look, but then how immediately easy it is, to understand his point. The sun is blocked by mist and clouds; it is obnubilated. Its beams are shorn. Only its dimness penetrates. But still we know it to be the sun. Then, when talking about the eclipse, he says that "disastrous twilight" is shed on "half the nations." Again, in his use of disastrous, Milton reaches back to the Latinate origin of the word, which itself is derived from Greek. "Astron" is the Greek word for "star." Thus, "disastron" means "bad star" or "mischance, ill luck." Interestingly enough, English has no word for "under a good star," such as benastrous. Why not? It would be so preferable to saying "Good luck" all the time. But the Jews have the term "mazel tov"--under a good star--and perhaps we should all use that phrase. In any case, the original meaning of "disaster" is, from the OED, "An unfavorable aspect of a star or planet; an 'obnoxious planet.'" Shakespeare was the first to use the word in this way (Hamlet 1.1.118f.)
"Stars with trains of fire and dews of blood
Disasters in the sun."
A Digression within a Digression
Well, now we have two words (and I will presently introduce a third) we need to trace. Disaster means something unfavorable about a star/planet. Something disastrous is "ill-starred" or "ill-fated; unfortunate, unlucky." Thus, "disastrous twilight" of line 597 means "unlucky" or "ill-starred" twilight. It is unlucky because the meaning that seers give to eclipses tends to "perplex kings"--leading to instability for all. The OED definition of disaster, we recall, included "an "obnoxious planet." What does that mean? The word obnoxious is derived from Latin words relating to harm, and its oldest meaning in English is "liable, subject, exposed or open to a thing (esp. harm)." The present meaning of "obnoxious" as repellent or extremely bothersome only began to flourish in the 19th century. Before that time, however, "obnoxious" simply implied a vulnerability or susceptibility to harm. From John Bunyan (1682): "The Town of Mansoul..now lies obnoxious to its foes." An obnoxious planet would be one that is liable to cause us harm.
While on these two words, I need one word on yet another word--influence. Its oldest signification in English derives from astrology, and means "The supposed flowing or streaming (hence "in-flow" behind the word) from the stars or heavens of an ethereal fluid acting upon the character and destiny of men, and affecting sublunary things generally..." This goes back to Chaucer; later, in the seventeenth century, it was viewed, less literally, as simply an exercise of power or force.
One More Simile
The other simile comes from the end of the passage, and it vividly describes the withered glory of the Rebel Angels (612-15):
"as when Heaven's fire
Hath scath'd the forest oaks, or mountain pines,
With singed top their stately growth though bare
Stands on the blasted heath"
Forests bulk large in Milton's imagination, and here he brings into our view the results of a forest fire. Still stately are the trees, but their leaves and many branches have disappeared. They stand, almost naked, on the "blasted" heath. The word "blasted" continues the heavenly or even astrologically-oriented language of Milton in this passage, for its original significance, recorded in Shakespeare and then several times in PL, is "balefully or perniciously blown or breathed upon; stricken by meteoric or supernatural agency.., blighted." The idea of "blasted" as "cursed" only arises with Dryden, slightly after Milton's death.
Milton's language and beautiful similes here remind us we are in the realm of spiritual, though infernal, things. We can barely wait to hear what Satan now has to say.