Thursday, December 30, 2010

A few sources for P.L. 6

Andrew Marvell admits he had his doubts about Paradise Lost:

When I beheld the Poet blind, yet bold,
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,
That he would ruine (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song,

One has to wonder if those dubieties peaked with the War in Heaven of Book 6. This action-packed "epic" ("mock epic" seems not right, but nearly just as right as "epic") features sword-wielding angels in cubic phalanxes, mountains flung like mudpies, a novel mode of canon-formation, truly execrable puns, and the Merkabah, a souped-up Chariot that blows away the works of drag-racing enthusiasts.

Some critics pass over Book 6 in as few words as possible. It has to be one of the strangest poetic concoctions ever undertaken, and it's a measure of the poet's confidence that he boldly proceeded with his over-the-top treatment of the war of Satan against the Heavenly Hosts in such detail -- a scene that receives the barest mention in a few scattered places in the Bible. After the quiet meal and contemplative conversation of Book 5, Book 6 is non-stop action. But the strange poetic mode might prod us to wonder: what is action?

Shackling Michael and Gabriel in Homeric garb is one thing -- after all, they are traditionally envisioned as warriors. But the escalation of the techniques of violence from swords to howitzers to mountains seems all Milton, and it risks falling into comic-book bathos as precipitously as Satan and his legions plummet into the gaping maw of hell at the book's end. Once again in the poem, a fall is staged, but here in full military regalia. With Marvell, we might want to ask: what was he thinking?

A few bits of fable and old song to have in mind for Book 6 would necessarily include Hesiod's battle of the Olympians and Titans from his Theogony, Homer's accounts of duels and combat in the Iliad, the chariot of Ezekiel 1 and 10, and the allusions to the war in heaven in Rev. 12. If others come to mind, be sure to share them as we make our way through this strangest of literary depictions of war.

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