(to return to PL Table of Contents, click here)
65. The Heavenly Chorus, First Essay
Paradise Lost III. 344-415
No sooner had th' Almighty ceas't, but all
The multitude of Angels with a shout [ 345 ]
Loud as from numbers without number, sweet
As from blest voices, uttering joy, Heav'n rung
With Jubilee, and loud Hosanna's filld
Th' eternal Regions: lowly reverent
Towards either Throne they bow, and to the ground [ 350 ]
With solemn adoration down they cast
Thir Crowns inwove with Amarant and Gold,
Immortal Amarant, a Flour which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for mans offence [ 355 ]
To Heav'n remov'd where first it grew, there grows,
And flours aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of Bliss through midst of Heavn
Rowls o're Elisian Flours her Amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect [ 360 ]
Bind thir resplendent locks inwreath'd with beams,
Now in loose Garlands thick thrown off, the bright
Pavement that like a Sea of Jasper shon
Impurpl'd with Celestial Roses smil'd.
Then Crown'd again thir gold'n Harps they took, [ 365 ]
Harps ever tun'd, that glittering by thir side
Like Quivers hung, and with Præamble sweet
Of charming symphonie they introduce
Thir sacred Song, and waken raptures high;
No voice exempt, no voice but well could joine [ 370 ]
Melodious part, such concord is in Heav'n.
This section of Book III, which functions as a long interlude between the heavenly conversation of the Father and the Son and the movements of Satan (beginning in line 416), consists in two parts:
(1) a description of Heaven (344-371) and
(2) a chorus of praise to the Father and the Son (372-415).
Note that there is no mention of a chorus to the Spirit or to the Triune God; Milton is not a committed Trinitarian in PL. The thesis of this essay is that the (uncharacteristic, for Milton) unclarity of the description of Heaven is a deliberate literary device used by the poet to stress that the "eyes" that he asks the Spirit to "plant" in him (III. 53) have been so planted but they, as yet, aren't able to "focus." They will begin to focus later in the book, and especially in Book IV, when Paradise and the Garden of Eden are described.
(Commentators have often noted the beauty of the words describing Heaven. One of the earliest, Joseph Addision, in 1712 wrote the following about this passage:
"The close of this divine colloquy, with the hymn of Angels that follows upon it, are so wonderfully beautiful and poetical, that I should not forbear inserting the whole, if the bounds of my paper (The Spectator, a daily founded the previous year with Richard Steele) would give me leave.."
But modern readers, though not questioning the beauty of Milton's language, note the confusions or unclarities of the passage, especially in its use of similes. As one author says:
"the scene [the picture of Heaven] is peculiar, partially because the traditional pictures of heaven depend on a specialized use of language, partially because Milton has developed this language intelligently. The short similes in the passage illustrate the problem. A simile should clarify; these finally do not"
Michale Murrin, "The Language of Milton's Heaven," Modern Philology 74(4) (1977), p. 355.
In other words, the very elements that function in the rest of PL to make a picture more vivid and clear actually make things more fuzzy here. Murrin and others have attributed this to the difficulty of a human's attempting to imagine and describe the indescribable and unexperienced. Hadn't Milton said, in fact, that he was going to see and tell "Of things invisible to mortal sight" (III.55)? Naturally, he wouldn't be able to see and tell these things clearly. That is what many scholars argue.
I tend to take a position midway between Addison and Murrin. I will argue that the similes have some clarity, but that clarity is recognized if both the pastoral (i.e, Virgil) as well as the scriptural (i.e., Revelation) accounts are taken into consideration.
But if some unclarity remains, we might find a theological, rather than a literary explanation for it. I believe, that Milton is carefully making his similes somewhat indistinct to establish both that his prayer for eyes in III. 53 has been answered but not completely. That is, his eyes aren't really "focusing" accurately yet. To use a biblical analogy-- on one occasion Jesus healed a blind man by rubbing mud into his eyes. Jesus asked him if he could then see. The man said, "I see people, but they look like trees walking" (Mark 8:24). Jesus then went back to work and healed him completely with additional treatment. Thus, there is biblical precedent for the notion of a partial or "first try" at healing, a try which brings true but occluded or distorted sight. That is what I think is happening in the (four) similes in III. 344-371. Milton "sees" and "tells" of things invisible to mortal sight, but he is still seeing them "as through a glass darkly" or as if they were "trees walking." Let me illustrate this by brief mention of the four similes,
(a) The first expresses the number of heavenly beings who shouted their approval at the Father and Son's conversation. It is described as follows: "with a shout/ Loud as from numbers without number..." (345-46). Though there is clarity in the thought, it is curious that he would he have chosen a simile from the field of number and then not used either the biblical or classical language to define that number. He might have said, using classical analogies, thousands upon thousands or, using a biblical phrase, "like the voice of many waters" (i.e., that loud), but his use of generality when specificity is hinted at, is an example of slight indefiniteness, occlusion, distortion.
(b) The second simile also has some clarity, but also provokes questions. Milton says that this same multitude of Angels shouting so loud is "sweet/ As from blest voices, uttering joy" (346-47). Do blest voices express their shout in a sweeter fashion that unblest voices? And, what might that sound be like? Is the "joy" supposed to modify the blest voices? I get no picture in my mind from this simile; in other words, I see people, but they are like trees walking.
In between these two similes and the next is a memorable discussion of the amaranth, the "undying" plant, which was removed from the Garden of Eden (there is no biblical mention of it) to heaven after the sin of our first parents. But as David Rosenberg and Donald Maurice point out, "Heaven in Paradise Lost is more pastoral than the New Jerusalem of St John the Divine, and has much in common with Virgil's Elysian Fields," Oaten Reeds and Trumpets: Pastoral and Epic in Virgil, Spenser and Milton, p 197. They go on to illustrate this in several of Milton's lines in Book III. The result is that an image like the next one, confuses.
(c) We have the following description: "the bright/ Pavement that like a Sea of Jasper shone/ Impurpl'd with Celestial Roses" (362-63). So we have special purple roses embedded in the heavenly pavement, but what does the pavement actually look like? What color is it? As Murring says, "If the color is meant [by the comparison], then Milton should have chosen a stone with less of a range of possible colors." He glosses "jasper" as a stone that is blue-green, while another scholar says it is yellow or brown. All the Bible says is that the pavement was crystalline or "something like a sea of glass," Revelation 4:6. What is suggested by Milton's reference to the pavement isn't clear.
(d) Finally, we have a clear simile. The angels let their harps dangle by their sides "Like Quivers hung" (367). Maybe his sight is now beginning to focus once he gets to the end of his description...
The next essay finishes my consideration of this long passage.