Thursday, January 07, 2010

Paradise Lost II.284-292

With regard to the interesting simile at the end of Mammon's speech in Book II:

He scarce had finisht, when such murmur filld
Th' Assembly, as when hollow Rocks retain [ 285 ]
The sound of blustring winds, which all night long
Had rous'd the Sea, now with hoarse cadence lull
Sea-faring men orewatcht, whose Bark by chance
Or Pinnace anchors in a craggy Bay
After the Tempest: Such applause was heard [ 290 ]
As Mammon ended, and his Sentence pleas'd,
Advising peace: 

Dartmouth editors and others say there's a probable allusion to Virgil, Aeneid 10, 96 ff:

Thus Juno. Murmurs rise, with mix'd applause,
Just as they favor or dislike the cause.
So winds, when yet unfledg'd in woods they lie,
In whispers first their tender voices try,
Then issue on the main with bellowing rage,
And storms to trembling mariners presage.

Both poets are using similes to describe, and perhaps comment upon, an audience's response to a speech -- in Virgil the speech is Juno's justification for wishing to destroy Aeneas and his people; in Milton it's Mammon's urging a policy that would lead to an independent Republic of Pandemonium.

It's helpful to look the differences in the similes. Virgil's winds are "voices" - they begin fairly weak, stirring in the woodlands, then, strengthening, reach the sea and build to a terrifying storm. A natural process of amplification, along with a movement from land to sea, with the mariners in the simile facing the oncoming storm.

Milton's winds are quite different. In his image, the murmur is an acoustical illusion*. The storm has abated, the sound of it is captured and prolonged in the hollow rocks -- these "winds" are the aftereffect, the echoic mimicry of the sounds of a storm now over. Instead of sailing in the open sea about to face a growing storm, Milton's mariners are oerwatcht from having experienced the tempest, and "by chance" have anchored their Bark or Pinnace (there's Milton's inevitable "or") in a bay. They appear to have weathered the storm, and now, wearily hearing the after-echo of the winds, they are lulled. (A pinnace could be one of two sorts of boats, both relatively small, often used by smugglers or pirates. We will see other similes involving Satan and ships, fleets, clouds, etc.)

Milton's murmuring Angels are then compared with a sort of acoustical image of winds -- a peculiar caprice (a trompe l'oreille?) of nature, rather than a common, naturally occurring event.

While our annotated texts reflexively refer to the classical poets, as if Milton were simply being derivative, he's actually produced a fairly intricate little scene, complete with aural illusion, and one that seems to wander from its point: by the end of it, we can't be entirely sure we understand how the complex image illustrates, enhances, clarifies or even relates to the sound of the applause the fallen angels are making in response to Mammon's counsel. Were they making a strong sound, or a relatively weak echo? Instead of building to a terrifying roar, it seems to have the effect of lulling, mesmerizing, tired mariners. Were the demons enthusiastically applauding, or mesmerically echoing a claque that triggered a crowd effect?

We seem to be dealing with a self-estranging simile: Subtly the authenticity of this applause is put in question -- something that is usually considered a spontaneous expression of the self, or soul, may now perhaps be neither spontaneous, or expressive of actual selves or souls.

And what about these mariners? Instead of skillfully surviving the storm, they've anchored "by chance" in a craggy bay. Their status as "safe from the storm" seems to have depended not on skill or courage, but on pure chance. Pandemonium is full of chance, including chance sonic effects.

While we're talking aural illusion, mimicry, what do we make of "oerwatcht"? As the mariners are probably weary from too much watching and care in the face of the storm, the angels are presumably tired from the strenuous exercise of this debate. Or, are they oerwatcht in another sense -- as in, watched over, over heard, spied upon -- their secret Conclave transparently audible and visible to the Enemy, as they call him?

There is enough dynamic ambiguity here to remind us we are not in Kansas - or in any stable, simply intelligible place - anymore.

*Speaking of acoustical illusion, Milton seems fascinated by this phenomenon. See this complex blend of sounds:

Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water'd shoar, [ 75 ]
Swinging slow with sullen roar;

Il Penseroso

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