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43. Milton's Language in Paradise Lost I. 619-34
Teasing Out Poetic Brilliance
Thrice he assayd, and thrice in spight of scorn,
Tears such as Angels weep, burst forth: at last [ 620 ]
Words interwove with sighs found out thir way.
O Myriads of immortal Spirits, O Powers
Matchless, but with th' Almighty, and that strife
Was not inglorious, though th' event was dire,
As this place testifies, and this dire change [ 625 ]
Hateful to utter: but what power of mind
Foreseeing or presaging, from the Depth
Of knowledge past or present, could have fear'd,
How such united force of Gods, how such
As stood like these, could ever know repulse? [ 630 ]
For who can yet beleeve, though after loss,
That all these puissant Legions, whose exile
Hath emptied Heav'n, shall fail to re-ascend
Self-rais'd, and repossess thir native seat?
If someone were to ask me what it is about Paradise Lost that makes it, in many people's minds, the most brilliant long poem ever written in English, I would, without hesitation, say that it is the marriage of words and ideas. The latter are breathtaking in scope and are vividly described, with similies and dialogue adding to the their expression. The focus of this essay is on the former (the words) and, more specifically, on a close consideration of his Milton's selection of words in a small segment of Book I--Satan's speech to the assembled demons in Hell before the infernal counsel began. I pick this section not because it has been noted for its special brilliance or significance; in fact it is as "routine" a passage as Milton offers. But precisely in this, a close consideration of routine talk, is an opportunity for us to learn the key to creative and powerful expression. This essay will list a few ways in which Satan spices up the beginning of his speech to the troops.
Setting the Context
Milton first tells us of Satan's faltering attempts to begin the speech: "Thrice he assayed, and thrice in spite of scorn" (619) he had to stop himself. These threes reflect an epic convention of repeated uses of threes or fours to highlight an important activity. He may have been thinking about the "four times" uses of Virgil when the Roman poet describes the Trojans' welcoming the horse: "Four times it lurched to a halt at the very brink of the gates--four times the armer clashed out from its womb" (Aeneid II. 242-43). Epic speech; epic context; big doings..
Satan's emotions are also noted. He cries, with "tears such as angels weep burst forth" (620). Most commentators use this as a convenient place to discuss what capacities the fallen angels still have in Hell; I think it points to Milton's "humanizing" of the demons. They have feelings too. This is especially apparent in some lines that precede, where out of the blue when discussing the stately march of the demons at their dread commander's call, Milton says that they were not afraid of death, but that they had power to "mitigate and swage (i.e., assuage), with solemn touches, troubled thoughts, and chase anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain" away not just from immortal breasts but also from "mortal minds" (558-60). These remarkable thoughts portray the demons as a cross between personal counselors and life coaches. They feel the pain of others and they have the capacity to mitigate the pain; in the words of one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, "a dimly burning wick" they "would not quench" (See Isaiah 42:3).
The Speech Itself
The speech encouraging the demons to arm themselves for a new war ("War then, war open or understood must be resolved" (662)) follows. I have briefly analyzed it elsewhere but here I will look at the sinews of the first part of the speech. Three things that are key for Milton are: 1) repeated syllables, words and phrases; 2) subordinate clauses; and 3) balanced or rhythmic syllables. Let's look at examples of each.
1. Rhetorical power inheres in careful repetition. So here Milton repeats both words and concepts that build energy. Sometimes the words are precisely repeated, other times the second use echoes the first in many particulars; "O myriads of immortal spirits" and "O powers Matchless" (622-23) begin things. The "event" or outcome (from the Latin "evenire" meaning to "come out, happen, result") was "dire" and the change faced by the demons was "dire." "This" place testifies to "this" dire change (625). Satan is struggling to learn "how such" united force of the gods, "how such" as stood before him, could have lost (629-30). But for me the most powerful repeated item in these lines is the threefold "re" of "repulse" (630), "reascend" (633) and "repossess" (634). Just as earlier in the book a king was said to 'dis'-place and 'dis'-parage' (473) God, so here the immortal fallen angels want to "re"-up for life. The 're' functions as a literary exhortation not to be satisfied with one's current condition. Though one was repulsed, one can reascend and, eventually, repossess. Actually, the "re" is there because the heavenly seats they want are actually their seats, in their "native" land, where they did and, if Satan has anything to say about it, will live with the other "sceptered angels" who there "held their residence" (734). In other words, Satan's rhetorical strategy through this speech is to reframe the angelic rebellion into an (unjust) divine displacement from rightful homes. It is almost as if the tsunami of grief and pain they experienced was a result of a tsunami of expulsion that, at worst, resulted from miscalculation and, at best, was a majority movement against an unjust tyrant in heaven.
2. Subordinate clauses function to maintain the main thought of the passage, while giving the reader a slight mental break to escape the direction of thought or just to vary the intellectual topography of the scene. Two examples of this suffice. Milton has Satan describe the not inglorious strife, with dire "event," and then he drops in the little phrase, "as this place testifies" (625). He could easily have dropped the phrase, but by adding it he makes the reader consider once again all the images of the place, built up with rapid and vivid potency starting about line 50 of Book I. We see again, in our mind's eye, the "darkness invisible," we hear the noises of pained demons, we almost feel the slimy and steamy soil that burns incessantly. Then there is the revealing phrase, "whose exile hath emptied Heav'n" (632-33). Satan is at his self-deceived best here. As a way to try to reanimate his colleagues, he gives them the impression that their "millions" (609, 664) far exceed those who stayed around to support the cruel tyrant (God) who unceremoniously threw them out of Heaven. These legions, these "puissant" legions (632--a great word to use today), are being exhorted to reascend and repossess their native seat. But dropped in there, in a subordinate clase, is the phrase, "whose exile hath emptied Heav'n." Rather than urging the reader through this sentiment to review the contents of Book I in his/her mind, it draws us into the intimate, blurry, and deception-clogged mind of Satan.
3. Let's close this essay with two examples of how Milton uses the word "or" to connect clearly synonymous concepts in order to heighten his argument and broaden the scope of the reader's imagination. Satan is exploring with his legions the idea of how they could possibly have suffered defeat. He is quite incredulous at the loss, and he explores incredulity by drawing out his question that goes from 626-30. He wants to know how such a powerful force, such an impressive multitude could ever know repulse. He says, "but what power of mind foreseeing or presaging..." (626-27). The concepts of foreseeing and presaging overlap considerably, but the double use of a synonym should make the reader pause to focus on the utter incomprehensibility, from Satan's perspective, of loss. We say, in 2020, how "no one could have foreseen this..." But Milton adds the "presaging" to it, as if to tie down the concept of incredulity even a bit tighter. Then, to add to the note of incomprehension, he adds that no one had the depth of knowledge "past or present" (628) to foresee this. By pausing on these terms, and reading them slowly, one gets the full sense of Satan's feeling of surprise, injustice, incomprehension and desire for revenge that fuels his speech.
The result of reading and hearing Milton slowly is that we are brought into the tension of the moment even more so than if the poetry proceeded with linearity. We recognize the admission of loss; we see the defiance; we hear the insistence and powerful words; we almost taste the disbelief and denial and defiance and determination of the infernal brood. And, our language and imagination and joy are thereby increased.