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50. The Little Word "Or" and a Few More Thoughts on Book I
Finishing Book I
But then we return to the scene before us in Hell, and we see the demons swarming. Now that Milton has our attention, he diverts it again. We become like putty in his hands, pliable readers able and willing to embark on intellectual journeys as long as he takes us to pleasant places. And the next place he takes us is suggested by the onomatopoetic line 768:
"Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings."
Say that three or four times, and we leave the notion of demons that throng to the notion of hissing and rustling wings. Once he has us here, he can introduce his most powerful simile, that of the bees. Let's quote it entire, and then reflect on its allure and, especially, the power of the "or" in it (768-75).
". . . . . As bees
In spring-time, when he Sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth their populous youth about the hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed plank,
The suburb of their straw-built citadel,
New rubbed with balm, expatiate, and confer
Their state affairs."
All that I have time for here is to focus on the "or." The "or" divides the simile into two distinct bee activites: the flying too and fro of the bees poured forth from the hive and the conversing on state affairs of the bees on the "smoothed plank." We normally associate bee life with the former; indeed, the fullest classical description of bee life, the Book IV of Virgil's Georgics, provides a detailed catalogue of the "too and fro" activities of bees. But the latter image, of bees conferring on state affairs, is unique. Virgil only mentions that "The aged (bees) have the town in charge," but he doesn't give such a clear picture of their political instincts. Thus, the "or" functions in this passage to give new life to the simile. Whereas the first part of it is familiar, even if well-described, the second part gives us more than one new mental image. We see them clustering not in buzzing hordes but on the "smoothed plank," and we see them walking around and conferring. I suppose the plank is their "entrance hall." It functions like a long wooden perch for birds outside their nest. I love the description of the plank as "The suburb of their straw-built citadel." Milton couldn't have anticipated the central importance of that term (suburb) in later centuries, but it is humorous nevertheless. Bees are gathering, walking around, conversing on important matters of state out in the open, in the "suburbs" of their hive, in public where there is freedom to "expatiate" and explore.
See what "or" has done. It has allowed the author to keep us buzzing with the bees but also to enter into an entirely new concept for us--the idea of bees planning and conversing on political affairs. We simply aren't able to return to the demons thronging because our imagination is fully occupied with the bees talking--in the suburbs.
Then, signo dato (the signal having been given--a familiar Latinism), a transformation happens in the demons. They become very small, shrinking in an instant so that even more of them can crowd into the tight space. Even though he likens the smallness of the demons to Pygmies, he really wants to go somewhere else--with another simile and another "or." He fixes on "Faery Elves," familiar to him from his romance reading. This simile is quite complex, as he goes from Pygmies, to Faery Elves, to a Peasant in the fields, to the Moon above and back to the jocund Faery Elves. It is as if Milton's mind is dancing with vivid images while the Faery Elves are engaged in "their mirth and dance" (786). The numberlessness of the Fallen Angels reminds him of the Elves. But it is the movement of the Angels/Elves that moves him. They revel at midnight. An up-late peasant sees the revel, or dreams he sees, and the moon sits arbitress over it all as it draws nearer to the earth (perhaps because of responding to a human incantation).
But why the words "or dreams he sees?" Again, there is a partial classical answer to that one. In the Aeneid VI.454 the phrase "aut videt aut vidisse putat" ("either sees or thinks he has seen") appears, and perhaps Milton is so imbued with the classical language that he can't do anything but repeat it. But perhaps something else is also happening. He already is in a kind of dreamscape as he talks about Faery Elves. It is like a midnight clear, with angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold. They can only be seen in the poetic imagination. So, a late night peasant, who may be working or may be sleeping and dreaming, for the two worlds of late night quiescence and dreaming are near neighbors, sees the Faery Elves. Or he dreams he sees them. By dropping in that little phrase "Or dreams he sees" (784), Milton allows us to enter into our dreams, our secret world between sleeping and waking, our intimate spaces of escape and engagement.
But then, the image rebounds to the Faery Elves, and the peasant's heart "rebounds" with joy and fear and, to be clear, our attention rebounds to the scene of the Fallen Angels before us. We return to where we left off--a scene full of figures "without number" (791). And then we turn to the conclave that is about to happen.
But see what Milton has done. He has let us escape and engage in our own fantasies, and our own unique images come rushing back to our mind--whether of Western movies or of engaing in political dialogue or of that most solitary liminal space of our lives between waking and dreaming. He lets us stay there, and he lets us choose how we will entertain ourselves in those precious moments, even as he triggers thought after thought. But eventually he, the master poet, brings us back from the reverie of our own experience into the flow of the narrative. He is a strong author, and he won't let us wander far. But he gives us the privilege of wandering, and we thank him for it. We consider him a better poet because he has allowed us time to daydream while reading his work. Indeed, that may be one of the signs of a great teacher--s/he knows how to give students mental breaks in the course of an hour, letting them take journeys of the mind (and Internet) to far-off realms of the universe for a few moments. But then the students are brought back to the realities before them, and they come back to those realities refreshed. But they can't help thinking that the teacher surely is a good teacher--to let them escape as they did. Surely learning shouldn't be that much fun. Milton does the same for us. What a great poet!