The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Wild work in the heaven of ‘Paradise Lost’

Posted on: October 24, 2007

I last covered book IV in which Satan was caught spying on Adam and Eve and got told off by Gabriel. The main action in book V is God sending Raphael down to earth to “render man inexcusable” by telling him how and why Satan was evicted from heaven. (Yes, that will work.) book VI is concerned with the battle part of the narrative.

Before the battle starts we get the small scene of the Seraph Abdiel being welcomed back to the faithful and commended by God himself for rejecting Lucifer’s rebellious arguments in book V.

Servant of God, well done, well has thou fought
The better fight, who single has maintained
Against revolted multitudes the cause
Of truth, in word mightier than they in arms;
And for the testimony of truth hast borne
Universal reproach, far worse to bear
Than violence: for this was all thy care
To stand approved in sight of God, though worlds
Judged thee perverse: the easier conquest now
Remains thee

Milton uses his poem to do a lot of things, including several unfavourable descriptions of Catholic hierarchy and shots at royalty. My reading of the poem is primarily a religious one, but with the help of annotations I do see that it is, to a great extent, a political work as well. For Milton, it would seem, one ideology is rooted in the other. He was a fierce anti-royalist who wrote many political tracts (a task which he believed made him blind) and approved wholeheartedly the beheading of the first King Charles in 1649. Before the second one reclaimed the throne in 1660 he wrote another political tract, The Ready and Easy Way to Establishing a Free Commonwealth, a very dangerous move. (For that and more he had to go into hiding and was in danger of being hanged and quartered, the fate of some of his other colleagues.) I could not help thinking that, besides the obvious Biblical allusions of the quote, it had political inference. He started composing Paradise Lost in 1658 and continued after the Restoration. He must have felt rather singular in his continued, if needfully more subtle protests against Royalty and the Established Anglican Church. I feel as though I should read more of him (if it’s even the relevant chapters in a book) so that I can expound on this more clearly to myself. (It’s a shame, isn’t it, that I didn’t major in English. Or not, the book may well been ruined for me.)

After that touching episode, God’s army of angels prepare to march out for war, and as things get more violent, the epic references and allusions — borrowed images, descriptions, and overall heroic tone and gestures –increase. At first I thought it was primarily due to works like The Iliad being especially suited to grand military ventures, but in the introduction John Leonard reminded me that there was an even stronger connection.

He [Milton] did not first plan to write a biblical epic. In ‘At a Vacation Exercise’ he assumes that pagan gods are the proper epic deities, and that ‘kings and queens and heroes old’ are the proper epic subject. Epic poems were expected to express the spirit of a nation, and Milton’s initial aim was to write an epic for England.

This may sound corny but as I am rereading The Lord of the Rings at the same time, I can’t help but be amazed and impressed at human ambition and imagination, in the way some great writers and artists wished to create new worlds for their readers, of great significance. There is a foolhardiness too, of course, in that such works tend to trample under their feet anyone who does not share their perspective, or identity, but at a distance I can still admire.

Back on topic, it could be argued that epic grandeur is one thing, but Lucifer has brought violence into heaven and the poem should evoke the reader’s horror. Wonder was my reaction, helped by the fact that this was carried out by angels rather than mere mortals. (Much is made of the fact that Lucifer and his followers feel pain for the first time.) On the first day of battle Lucifer’s side is losing, of course, a predicament foreshadowed by Abdiel’s swift attack on Lucifer in a confrontation that sent him to his knees. He did not fare much better in a rout with Archangel Michael.

I found this highly disappointing in light of how magnificent and powerful I imagined him to be, built up by Milton’s flattering presentation and Sunday School lessons. It made me consider that Satan’s immeasurable confidence and belief in his might is largely rooted in self-delusion. Yes, God is invincible but it did not mean, that Satan could not be formidable, he was the brightest morning star and so on, yet there he is, caught off-guard by a little Seraph. I thought he had more up his sleeve in regards to physical strength and spiritual power. But my view is molded by my humanity. We are told that Satan is the cause of so much evil in the world, and to us mortals any other-worldly being, especially a leader, must loom large. It’s actually more intriguing now to think of him as being remarkable in little else but brain power — which is more than enough. It’s too bad God was so uptight and myopic about the whole thing. By banishing him to Hell he essentially gave him a promotion of sorts, as there he became his arch nemesis.

In the evening of the first discouraging day, Lucifer and his followers regroup, and their leader reveals an invention of his that momentarily overwhelms God’s defenders the next day: the heavenly version of gunpowder. This was what filled me with sorrow and dread, and for a few moments made me turn against my favourite hero for bringing something so horrible in a place so sacred. Milton’s scatological metaphors help that feeling along. He describes the cannon fire on the second day.

Immediate in a flame,
But soon obscured with smoke, all Heav’n appeared,
From those deep-throated engines belched, whose roar
Embowelled with outrageous noise the air,
And all her entrails tore, disgorging foul
Their devilish glut, chained thunderbolts and hail
Of iron globes, which on the victor host
Levelled, with such impetuous fury smote,
That whom they hit, none on their feet might stand

Milton’s descriptions of paradise settings are beautiful, if a bit perfunctory with their oriental trappings (which seemed a quick way of making all seem luscious and exotic), but he does something more singular when he deals with the dark and horrible. Disgust inspires him.

God’s angels are not daunted for long. In the face of such artillery they take to the hills for ammunition ie they literally rip the hills and mountains from the ground and throw them at their opponents, who in turn cower for a while before finding their own mountains to rip out and throw in retaliation. Besides gleeful amazement this scene reinforced how different my image of heaven was from Milton’s, and how I had to constantly adjust it whenever he made reference to a terrain that was like an deluxe version of earth. All the pictorial renderings I’ve seen were of fluffy white clouds and…more fluffy white clouds. It was a mental whiplash when, earlier on, Lucifer describes how he discovered the materials he used to make gunpowder.

Which of us who beholds the bright surfáce
Of this ethereous mold whereon we stand,
This continent of spacious Heav’n, adorned
With plant, fruit, flow’r ambrosial, gems and gold,
Whose eye so superficially surveys
These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till touched
with Heav’n’s ray, and tempered they shoot forth
So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.

As the two sides wreak utter chaos in their celestial abode, on the third day God (Big Don) and Jesus (Little Don) engage in some mutual adoration. Each tells the other how wonderful He is, and then God notes that this may be the time for Little Don to swoop in and grab the victory he was promised. He notes that both opponents currently battling it out are evenly matched, though Lucifer’s and his minion’s spiritual essences are weakening because of their sin. But, caring Father that he is, “I suspend[ed] their doom”. Why? So that his only Son can get the kudos, of course, and oblige all of his earnest angels to be beholden to Him. (Father of the Year! Milton must have made Him so unlikable on purpose.)

From here on out it is the Little Don’s time as he rides in his sentient chariot which had “four Cherubic shapes; four faces each”, and wings and wheels with eyes. I found it all more gross that majestic but that was probably the point. With Victory personified at his side he chased the enemies out of heaven into the void. I felt sorry for the poor brutes and irritated that Milton tried to make them look stupidly stubborn for making a futile last stand. It’s not as if God would have been any more merciful had they surrendered and asked pardon.

The rebels fell for nine days and even Chaos was bewildered by the events. Archangel Raphael ends this remarkable chapter with a tidy warning for Eve and Adam.

But listen not to his temptations, warn
Thy weaker; let it profit thee to have heard
By terrible example the reward
Of disobedience; firm they might have stood,
Yet fell; remember, and fear to transgress.

Three guesses for which one was the “weaker”.


11 Responses to "Wild work in the heaven of ‘Paradise Lost’"

Excellent discussion of Milton. I love his work, but most especially this poem. As for his being inspired by disgust, as C.S. Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters, it’s a lot easier for us to write convincingly of evil than perfection, because we know evil well but are so far removed from perfection as to have to struggle to even try to imagine it.

I’ve also always loved the fact that Milton coined the word “pandemonium” for this work.

Thanks for the great post. Makes me want to go back and reread the whole poem.

Your Milton posts always make me want to read this for myself…probably not this year but maybe later on. This was great!

Ha! I can’t help it–I picture the mountain hurling stuff like cartoon animation–I find it hilarious. Bordering on pure kitch. Simply impossible to take seriously. If only Milton wasn’t himself so serious he might of remedied the unintentional humor with the real thing.

Such a grossly pathological vision only a good psychoanalytic exegesis could save … or the subversive power of William Blake!

I am enjoying your running commentary, though. I only wish my students had been such careful and thoughtful readers when I taught this a few years ago.

I enjoy your commentary too; I’ve considered reading this, or parts of it — actually I had to read it for school, but reading it outside of school feels like an entirely different experience, which would make it worth while reading again (not that it isn’t worthwhile anyway).

Waltzingaustralian I’m glad my typos and missed words (which I’ve tried to clean up) did not get in the way of your enjoyment. It may be true that perfection is harder to describe but I find that William Blake managed to portray that sort of thing very well.

I was surprised to find that he did coin “pandemonium” and quite a few other words too, or a particular definition of a word. I’ve been meaning to slip that into my posts somehow, but have not gotten around to it.

Thanks for commenting!

Verbivore by the time I finish posting about the book, maybe you’ll be persuaded. It may very well go into next year.

Jacob I’m more familiar with the image from Greek mythology, so perhaps that’s why it’s less cartoonish for me. The whole work is very much like a classic epic in important ways and I can never got enough of that sort of thing.

I’m really, really glad my posts are coming off as thoughtful. Whenever I publish one I’m overwhelmed by how much I haven’t covered…I seem to have barely touched the surface.

Dorothy I think the out-of-school reading experience would make a huge difference with a book like Paradise Lost.

Now I want to read this! Which book are you using? I have the Norton version.

Penguin classics, of course. 🙂

Ah, but of course!

“Ha ha ha, but of course, uh, you’ve got the key, so… “

Such a pleasant post! I’m so delighted you chose to talk about it.

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