07 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 7

I'll continue the Holy Week religious poetry a while longer, with a selection from Paradise Lost, which is one of my favorite poetic works anyway. John Milton (1608 - 1674) of course is the author. He wrote this greatest of his works when he had lost his sight and was in internal exile and official disgrace (a political radical deeply involved with the establishment and defense of the Commonwealth, he narrowly escaped execution after the restoration of Charles II). It's astonishing that anyone could maintain such magnificence and subtlety in a work of many thousands of lines, much less a blind and bitterly disappointed man, who had to compose his work in his head and dictate the previous night's lines to an amanuensis each morning. His epic is, among many other things, a study of the seductiveness of political rhetoric, and you feel his descriptions of political maneuvering in Hell are based on personal experience. I'm frequently amazed by readers who swoon uncritically over the glamorous tragic grandeur of lines like Satan's "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n" without considering the obvious point that Satan is the only one who is reigning in Hell, and the third of the angels who fell with him (he consistently lies about the number, claiming half fell) have ended up still serving, only in Hell, which sure doesn't seem like an improvement. But people always imagine themselves the king on the hilltop, not the serf in the valley.

Milton also plays off the classical epics, offering a battle mightier than any fought by Achilles or Hector (and then subverting the epic conventions by denouncing war and praising creation). This selection is from the end of Book V, as Satan amasses his army before the battle in Heaven. Abdiel, alone among the assembled, faces down and denounces the mob, a position the contentious Milton must have identified with. ("He" in the first line is Satan; the "flaming Seraph fearless" is Abdiel; "devoted" as in "these wicked tents devoted" means "doomed" – this is also the period when "fond" means "foolish," and so much for fondness and devotion):

He said, and as the sound of waters deep
Hoarse murmur echo'd to his words applause
Through the infinite Host, nor less for that
The flaming Seraph fearless, though alone
Encompass'd round with foes, thus answer'd bold.
"O alienate from God, O spirit accurst,
Forsak'n of all good; I see thy fall
Determin'd, and thy hapless crew involv'd
In this perfidious fraud, contagion spread
Both of thy crime and punishment: henceforth
No more be troubl'd how to quit the yoke
Of God's Messiah; those indulgent Laws
Will not be now vouchsaf't, other Decrees
Against thee are gone forth without recall;
That Golden Scepter which thou didst reject
Is now an Iron Rod to bruise and break
Thy disobedience. Well thou didst advise,
Yet not for thy advise or threats I fly
These wicked Tents devoted, lest the wrath
Impendent, raging into sudden flame
Distinguish not; for soon expect to feel
His Thunder on thy head, devouring fire.
Then who created thee lamenting learn,
When who can uncreate thee thou shalt know."
So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
Among the faithless, faithful only he;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyalty he kept, his Love, his Zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he pass'd,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustain'd
Superior, nor of violence fear'd aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd
On those proud Tow'rs to swift destruction doom'd.

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