Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Liquid Texture:" Epic Evanescence in P.L. Book 6

A long-ish post -- I hope it begins to tap into larger themes that have preoccupied this blog from the start.

As noted a while back, Book 6 thrusts us into territory that we've only glimpsed before in Paradise Lost. The epic/mock epic battle of the immortal angels poses a challenge Milton must have thought about for a good long time: how to present a battle scene that can draw upon the potent epic voice of Homer and Virgil, and include the many standard features of war poetry that accompany that voice -- the brave talk and repartee, the dual of two great fighters, the glory achieved in death, the clash of weapons and the strategies of generals in battle -- how to present this in Heaven?

The other day we looked at this depiction of Satan in the midst of the strife:

long time in eeven scale [ 245 ]
The Battel hung; till Satan, who that day
Prodigious power had shewn, and met in Armes
No equal, raunging through the dire attack
Of fighting Seraphim confus'd, at length
Saw where the Sword of Michael smote, and fell'd [ 250 ]
Squadrons at once, with huge two-handed sway
Brandisht aloft the horrid edge came down
Wide wasting; such destruction to withstand
He hasted, and oppos'd the rockie Orb
Of tenfold Adamant, his ample Shield [ 255 ]
A vast circumference:

In this "raunging" we see the physical dominance of the Homeric warrior in motion; we can almost feel the weariness of fighters, who, after a long day under the hot sun battling their enemies, sense that things can go either way, and then see their leader stand forth to do even greater deeds.

Milton is telling it here just as an ancient epic poet would, full of thrust and parry, the arduous heat of battle and the suspensful uncertainty of outcome. Yet we know, because Milton has made it clear from the beginning, that the rules here are different. These armies are self-organizing, require no leaders, and consist of vast ethereal beings who cannot be killed. Here are Satan and Michael:

two broad Suns thir Shields [ 305 ]
Blaz'd opposite, while expectation stood
In horror; from each hand with speed retir'd
Where erst was thickest fight, th' Angelic throng,
And left large field, unsafe within the wind
Of such commotion, such as to set forth
Great things by small, If Natures concord broke,
Among the Constellations warr were sprung,
Two Planets rushing from aspect maligne
Of fiercest opposition in mid Skie,
Should combat, and thir jarring Sphears confound.

Instead of seeming stymied by these complications, Milton makes a virtue of poetic necessity. After preparing the scene above, he vividly describes how Michael "shar'd" Satan with his sword:

deep entring shar'd
All his right side; then Satan first knew pain,
And writh' d him to and fro convolv'd; so sore
The griding sword with discontinuous wound
Passd through him, . . .

We experience the direct horror of epic warfare . . . but only for the length of this clause; rather than ending in death, it marks the end of pathos with a comma, before moving on, as Milton's verse relentlessly does, with "but":

. . . but th' Ethereal substance clos'd [ 330 ]
Not long divisible, and from the gash
A stream of Nectarous humor issuing flow'd
Sanguin, such as Celestial Spirits may bleed,
And all his Armour staind ere while so bright.

Before the reader or Satan can revel in the anguish of his war wound, it's closed -- indeed, we sense as we read forward that the immediately preceding verb:

passd through him

is now capable of an entirely different reading. Instead of penetrating guts, the sword is merely splicing air. Our attention is steered from Satan's innards to the matter of a stain on his Armour. Odd indeed, and more oddness is to come.

Next come the angel medics, rushing out to bear their leader off the field -- one thinks of several fallen Homeric heroes -- e.g. the rescue of Hektor, (Iliad xiv.428) -- carried off by comrades after valiant service. But Milton's peculiar alchemy won't leave it there. The battle, the wound, the pain, the bleeding (and immediate return to wholeness) the bearing off are very fine, but look at the utterly unexpected lines the scene closes with:

Yet soon he heal'd; for Spirits that live throughout
Vital in every part, not as frail man [ 345 ]
In Entrailes, Heart or Head, Liver or Reines;
Cannot but by annihilating die;
Nor in thir liquid texture mortal wound
Receive, no more then can the fluid Aire:
All Heart they live, all Head, all Eye, all Eare, [ 350 ]
All Intellect, all Sense, and as they please,
They Limb themselves, and colour, shape or size
Assume, as likes them best, condense or rare.

Instead culminating in an admiring send-off for the fallen hero, the poetry morphs into this mind-blowing disquisition upon the properties of "Spirits," involving an utterly different form of corporeality than the part/whole relations we humans are more or less stuck with. The fusion of "limb" and "limn" teeters on the grotesque, while "all Head, all Eye, all Eare" defies imagining.

Reading the War in Heaven as told by Raphael, then, is unlike other war spectacles. Somehow Milton is capable of sounding the diapasons of glory and heroism, and of instantly transforming their predictable pathos and eternizing glory into something far more imaginatively rich and strange. Readers caught up in the surreality of "all Head, all Eye, all Eare," forget Satan before he manages to get comfortable in his chariot.

Book 6 plays a remarkable poetic game. Milton is having us have it several ways in multiple registers. He delivers the heightened sonorities of classic heroics, yet as we listen they're already dissolving into something whose scope and daring novelty, for want of a better word, cause the lethal scenes we've just been enthralled by to strangely go from the mind.

It's not quite an oscillation: the battle is played for all it's worth, but even as we enter into its stirring spectacle, it's being deflated, obliterated if not annihilated.

Here is the same effect achieved in a single word:

. . . deeds of eternal fame [ 240 ]
Were don, but infinite:

Book 6 is not simply, then, a battle of good and bad angels. Or, perhaps it is, only they are the angels of classical tragedy and Biblical comedy, a war that's riven Western poetry from the moment these traditions were first brought into enigmatic synthesis.

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