Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Guarding the issue: Divine Children and their defenses

In a preceding post, ("The Air Jordan of English Poetry") we looked somewhat closely at an instance where a poetic hairball of allusions seems to have gone astray, and asked:
Has a bastardization of myths taken place here? ... The divine stories have wandered, or gotten torn from, from the original springs of inspired speech. They've gotten polluted, contaminated; there's no clear stream.
I don't want to convey the impression we're accusing Milton of nodding, although the blind poet might readily be forgiven if he did happen to slip on one or another bit of arcana. But moving from a description of the passage to an initial effort at interpretation, I wish to argue that Milton knows very well what he's doing here, and that the "mash-up" of gods, mortals and fabled gardens from various literary tributaries here suggests larger thematic and poetic concerns. After all, consider what's at stake: the stable continuity of divine and royal houses through the survival of the children.

Look at where in the text this happens: Milton is about to describe our and Satan's first view of our forebears in Paradise. Before getting to this, we go on a detour through four major ancient myths involving divine or royal children protected or unprotected by gods or kings: Proserpina, Daphne, Dionysus and the Ethiop line of Abassin Kings.

The series begins with the daughter of Demeter who was raped by Hades -- the god of the Underworld, brother of Zeus, took her, made her his queen, and later allowed Demeter to share her -- accounting for the birth of the diversity of seasons. Daphne was about to be raped by Apollo when she became a laurel. Dionysus, born of a woman then re-born of Zeus, had to be hidden from the wrath of Hera; of the Abassin kings, we have no myth, just the tale of their high secret garden at the headwaters of the Nile.

In other words, we are reminded at this crucial juncture of a world in which helpless children must be hidden, concealed, protected -- from other gods as well as from men and beastly predators. Dynasties are fragile, and children in this world are defenseless unless a wise and nurturing divinity, or a concealment or strategic defensive position, protect them from harm.

We've seen that Paradise is also a high place, protected by thorns and bramble, but the dangers here are not those of overpowering force. Adam and Eve are not defenseless babes. They are lordly, serene, and, though naked, fully capable of defending themselves, like David before Goliath, or Daniel in the lions' den. They are unexampled among pagan children of gods, since they were made to take care of themselves: sufficient to have stood, tho' free to fall. Angels surround them to ward off bad spirits, but bad spirits can and will gain access. The entire burden of defense is placed upon the children of God, because they have free will.

In light of Milton's portrait of the first couple, the preceding fables of hidden gods, including Ammon and Zeus himself, serve a key function. They offer a vision of a contrasting fallen world, in which even the highest deities and royal progeny are subject to the vicissitudes of force and desire. Only here in Paradise are found first-born children who are equipped to handle all comers. The ancient fables, Milton's web of allusions suggests, spoke of a world of mere nature, a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog and devil-take-the-hindmost world, in which the linear order of generations goes astray, bloodlines and families are muddled or disrupted, and nations share (or blend) gods as children share crayons. The series of allusions end in fruitless confusion when, at the very secluded (and very legendary) source of the Nile, we are driven to question the purity of our sources, the authority of their genesis. For Milton, so much depends upon beginnings. The passage turns out to concern the purity of the memory of origins and of poetic filiation as well as royal and biological generation.

Unlike the pagan fables, Milton's tale will sing of how the devil took the foremost. But not without the understanding that it didn't have to be that way.

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