The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“Back to thy punishment/ False fugitive”

Posted on: June 28, 2007

I’ve finished Book II of Paradise Lost, which had many memorable moments. The highest peers of Hell consulted each other as to which course the fallen should take after being evicted from Heaven. Muster their numbers and do a swift counter attack? Just hang around in this Tartarus because, you know, they could get used to the inhospitable elements after a while, build some new palatial digs (lots of adamantine around), and maybe God might mellow and let them back in? Or is there a third, slier plan by which they could effectively enact their revenge on the enemy?

It was a thrilling read because Milton lends drama to the proceedings, the warmongers clashing against the cowardly. Beelzebub, second in command to Satan, was the one who suggested that they could mess with God’s latest creation, about which rumours had been circled in Heaven; an idea he got from Satan himself. Everyone thinks it sounds swell but no one wants to be the first scout out to search for this new world, so Satan rolls his eyes and volunteers.

Which leads us to best bit, the very best bit, in Book II: Satan’s confrontation with Sin and Death. I could tell it was going to be good so I didn’t even check the end-notes for lines and lines. Satan flies up to the gate and sees that it’s guarded by two horrifying, grotesque figures.

Before the gates there sat
On either side a formidable shape;
The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
with mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of Hell-hounds never ceasing barked
with wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there, yet there still barked and howled
Within unseen.

Yes, you read that. The multiple headed beast re-enters her scaly, icky womb periodically. Milton is (unfortunately?) effective at stamping these images on your mind with the “fair” changed to “foul” and “voluminous and vast” reinforcing the picture. Then he goes for a sound with the “round” of “Hell-hounds” with “Cerberean mouths full loud”.

She’s bad enough on looks alone, but Death brings with his ghastly indistinct but frightening presence a hostile attitude.

The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,
For each seemed either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

Satan picks him out as the one who’s going to give him trouble and immediately starts beating his chest, so to speak, stating in no uncertain terms that he’s going through these locked gates, for no measly creature of Hell can “contend with Spirits of Heav’n”. (Also, he thinks they’re ugly, take that!) Death calls him on it though and Milton gives him some of the best lines in the book so far.

Art thou that traitor angel, art thou he,
Who first broke peace in Heav’n and faith, till then
Unbroken, and in proud rebellious arms
Drew after him the third part of Heav’n’s sons
Conjured against the Highest, for which both thou
And they outcast from God, are here condemned
To waste eternal days in woe and pain?
And reckons’t though thyself with Spirits of Heav’n,
Hell-doomed, and breath’st defiance here and scorn,
Where I reign king, and to enrage thee more,
Thy king and lord? Back to thy punishment,
False fugitive, and to thy speed add wings,
Lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue
Thy ling’ring, or with one stroke of this dart
Strange horror seize thee, and pangs unfelt before.

I love the repetition in the first line that so perfectly expresses his no doubt exaggerated wonder at Satan’s origins. He knows perfectly well who he is but it works as a nice dig at Satan’s fresh defeat and reminds him that he longer has any status as a heavenly creature. Then he tops it off with that brilliant follow-up, “Back to thy punishment,/False fugitive, and to thy speed add wings”. I read those last few lines several times, trying different deliveries, experimenting with hand gestures, revelling in the grandiose declarations. On the first read through this scene I was breathless with anticipation, eager to know how things would resolve.

Well. Milton certainly punctured my excitement. Sin interrupts them both claiming she and Death are Satan’s progeny, so how could they raise arms against each other? There’s also the nasty fact that only God can escape death and if Satan got hit with one of those darts it was all over. Satan doesn’t remember any of this — these two certainly don’t resemble him in anyway because he’s hot, first of all — so he asks for an explanation.

And what an explanation that was. Wes Craven and that Hostel director have nothing on Milton when it comes to presenting the horrific. Long story short when Lucifer was still in Heaven plotting his coup Sin leaped from his head a la Athene from Zeus, looking a lot prettier than she did now, with nice legs; she helped to rally his troops. She also helped to take care of his personal needs, if you know what I mean, and became pregnant. After Lucifer lost and they all got kicked out of Heaven, Sin was given the keys and ordered not to open the gates for anyone. I’ll let Milton tell you the rest.

Pensive here I sat
Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb
Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown
Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.
At last this odious offspring whom thou seest
Thine own begotten, breaking violent way
Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain
Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew
Transformed: but he my inbred enemy
Forth issued, brandishing his fatal dart
Made to destroy: I fled, and cried out Death;
Hell trembled at the hideous name, and sighed
From all her caves, and back resounded Death.
I fled, but he pursued (though more, it seems,
Inflamed with lust than rage) and swifter far,
Me overtook his mother all dismayed,
And in embraces forcible and foul
Engend’ring with me, of that rape begot
These yelling monsters that with ceaseless cry
Surround me, as thou saw’st, hourly conceived
And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
To me, for when they list into the womb
That bred them they return, and howl and gnaw
My bowels, their repast; then bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round,
That rest or intermission none I find.

It’s the worst example of in-breeding in literature. The dogs going back to munch on her insides is a nice touch. I may forget everything about this work in the future but this will stay with me ’till my deathbed. The only question I had at the end was, Precisely who came up with the idea of having Sin guard the gates of Hell? Who was that budding genius? That’s like putting Lindsay Lohan in charge of rehabilitation centre and telling her not to let any of her crack/alcohol buddies out.

God and his Son are about to make an appearance in Book III to answer all my questions. I don’t know if I’m going to buy it. In the opening “Argument” Milton explains that God lent his grace to man and not Satan because man was seduced but Satan erred out of malice. I hope it sounds more persuasive in blank verse.

4 Responses to "“Back to thy punishment/ False fugitive”"

Oh, that’s great. This poem is profoundly weird, isn’t it?

Profoundly. When I retold that scene to a couple of my roommates they were completely taken aback. As was I! But I do like the weirdness.

If you like Blake then read the poem THE ONE on my site. You have never seen anything like it, I promise.

But a smiling visitor here to share the really like (:, btw wonderful pattern . 218370

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