31 August 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/35

Satan enters the Serpent

          [. . . ] through each Thicket Dank or Dry,
Like a black mist low creeping, he held on
His midnight search, where soonest he might find
The Serpent: him fast sleeping soon he found
In Labyrinth of many a round self-roll'd,
His head the midst, well stor'd with subtle wiles:
Not yet in horrid Shade or dismal Den,
Nor nocent yet, but on the grassy Herb
Fearless unfear'd he slept: in at his Mouth
The Devil enter'd, and his brutal sense,
In heart or head, possessing soon inspir'd
With act intelligential; but his sleep
Disturb'd not, waiting close th'approach of Morn.
Now when as sacred Light began to dawn
In Eden on the humid Flow'rs, that breath'd
Their morning Incense, when all things that breathe,
From th'Earth's great Altar send up silent praise
To the Creator, and his Nostrils fill
With grateful smell, forth came the human pair
And join'd their vocal Worship to the Choir
Of Creatures wanting voice [. . . .]

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IX, ll 179 - 199

After running snake-in-the-garden poems the past two weeks, I figured I might as well close out the summer with the ultimate Snake in the ultimate Garden, so here is an excerpt from Paradise Lost, and I have to say it's more difficult to grab an excerpt from that poem than you might think: Milton's verse is so fluid and flexible, and I kept thinking, Well, if I go back farther I can bring in that point or suggest that irony, and pretty soon you're typing out the whole book (though I have often spent my time in less productive and interesting ways).

Preceding this passage is one of those great and rhetorically complex speeches by Satan. These speeches often fool people, because they tend to take Satan at face value – this seems like an obviously reductive way to read the poem, but lots of people do it. I've heard some readers – actually, professors – mention their admiration for Satan's line in Book I "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n"; a sentiment which is fine as far as it goes, except it doesn't go any farther than Satan. One third of the angels followed him in rebellion (he later fudges the numbers, claiming that "wellnigh half" the angels followed him, which is not exactly a blatant lie but also not the clear truth), and those angels aren't reigning in Hell, they're serving there, which is surely worse than serving in Heaven. The line requires you to identify with Satan and forget that any one else is involved. But of course there's only one leader, one Satan; everyone else is just a generic fallen angel. And to accept that line at face value you'd also have to agree that what the angels are doing in Heaven is, in fact, serving, and that serving is inherently degrading. Satan is always deeply, deeply egocentric. (When considering Satan, it's useful to remember Milton's extensive political experience as part of the Puritan rebellion against the monarchy (he was almost executed after the Restoration).)

Satan is also the spirit of destruction, opposed to the creative bounty of God (a role emphasized by frequent references to God as "the Creator"). And it's typical of Satan that he ranks and judges Creation, rather than simply enjoying each thing for itself. He sees his entrance into the Serpent (despite the latter's reputation for subtlety, and his beauty as described later in the poem) as a "foul descent" and soliloquizes, "But what will not Ambition and Revenge / Descend to? who aspires must down as low / As high he soar'd. . . " Satan's speeches are carefully plotted, tracing the diminishment of his spirit as he sinks himself further into damnation.

This passage opens with Satan taking the form of a "black mist low creeping" in order to evade the angels on guard in Eden. He is on a "midnight search." Although night is often spoken of favorably by Milton, here it performs a more conventional function as a time of disguise and danger, in order to contrast it with "sacred Light," which is consistently identified with God (as in the opening of Book III: "Hail holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born, / Or of th'eternal Coeternal beam / May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light / And never but in unapproached light / Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in thee, / Bright effluence of bright essence increate"). The mist reminds us that at the time of the poem's composition, mists were thought to be unhealthful. Low and creeping add to the scene's sense of horror, and our sense of the self-degradation of the once-mighty and magnificent Heavenly warrior.

Satan finds the object of his search, the Serpent, who is sleeping, his head in the middle of all his coils. This infolding circularity is described as a Labyrinth, which brings to mind the deadly monster, the Minotaur, in the middle of the original classical Labyrinth (there is a constant dialogue in Milton's epic between classical mythology and Christian belief). A labyrinth is also a confusing maze, filled with potential wrong paths, to be contrasted with the straight and narrow path that according to the gospels leads to salvation. As in Genesis, the serpent is described as the subtlest beast of the field, but neither Genesis nor Milton gives us any examples of the serpent's subtlety apart from Satan's actions through him (poor maligned Serpent!). This serpentine labyrinth is made of "many a round self-roll'd" – self-roll'd is part of the poem's on-going insistence on personal choice and responsibility (that is, free will); it's notable that the rebel angels are not actually thrown out of Heaven; instead, they choose to leap out of sheer terror when Messiah appears in his war-chariot during the battle in Heaven. Self-roll'd here is a subtle reinforcement of that theme, associating the Serpent and Satan with personally chosen confusion.

Another theme that is picked up in this passage is a sense of the impending Fall: throughout the poem we get Paradise, but hard on its heels is lost. So while the Serpent is still just another one of the delightful creatures in Eden (though with a head filled with wiles, which is one of the on-going indications that Paradise, far from being a state of antiseptic "perfection," is filled with the potential for its own destruction). So Milton defines the Serpent by what he is not yet: he does not yet hide in darkness, in dank crevices and other frightening places; he is not yet nocent (which is the opposite of innocent: that is, harmful, injurious, guilty). Phrasing it that way – he's not yet guilty – reminds us that he soon will be. Even before the Fall, the Serpent is seen retroactively, from the perspective of what he will soon become. This sense of the looming loss of innocence and goodness is part of what gives this epic, so much of which deals with heavenly and philosophical struggles, its poignant human power. For the time being, the Serpent is fearless and also not feared by other creatures.

The creeping black mist now enters the Serpent through his mouth: the first creature possessed by Satan. There is a pun on brutal: it refers to what used to be called "the brute beasts" (that is, the non-human creatures, those without language) but also carries its more usual modern sense of savage, hard, unpleasant. Satan in possession inspires the Serpent. This means fills him with the urge to do something, but it also means to breathe (from the Latin in spirare, to breathe into). Note later in the passage the importance of breath'd / breathe: two lines in a row end with these almost identical words, where they are associated with worship and with life itself. The use of inspire for the Serpent is part of the diabolical parody that runs through the poem, and sometimes we are introduced to the parody before we meet the celestial object of mockery (for example, we are introduced to the incestuous triangle of Satan, Sin, and Death before we meet its sacred counterpart, the Holy Trinity).

The night-scene of creeping terrors gives way to the sacred dawn. The unhealthy mist of Satan is contrasted with the humid (that is, dewy) flowers. As noted above, Satan's "inspiration" of the Serpent is contrasted with the peaceful breaths of Creation. Earth, in a beautiful image, is a great altar from which silent praise rises to the Creator (in contrast to this sacred and joyful unity, Satan resents any tribute paid to a power that isn't himself, and he is intent on destroying Paradise, simply because it isn't his). There is an echo of Biblical language in God's nostrils filling with the grateful smell of incense (grateful means both pleasing to the recipient and full of gratitude from the giver). The human pair come forth and give voice to the unlanguaged praise of the Garden and all of Creation, on this, the last day of their harmony.

I took this from the Signet Classic edition edited by Christopher Ricks, which is the one I usually carry around when I read this poem. The cover has changed several times since I started buying this edition; this version seems to be the latest.

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