Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book VI: Bum's Rush

As our reading of book 6 comes near to the end, a few things stood out in our discussion. To briefly summarize, Milton pulls out all the stops in bringing the first, cyclic half of his poem to a climax:

- the three-day structure of the book echoes the larger three-part structure of the poem, and of sacred history, which begins with a war in heaven, continues with a messianic triumph on Earth, and concludes with an apocalyptic final battle at the end of time.

- the hint that God and his creation are moving toward an ultimate convergence when God shall be "all in all."

- the diminished role of Satan, who is not directly presented or given a speech, yet ends up being mercilessly parodied.

- Milton's flawless use of Homer and the Bible, especially Exodus and Ezekiel, in portraying the action of the third day, when the Son in his Chariot singlehandedly triumphs over the rebel angels. The parallel with Achilles, whose rage dooms him, and the parody of Satan as a misguided Moses, leading his people to take a final stand before an onrushing King, only to find that instead of the Red Sea rolling back, the walls of heaven part to disclose a Promised Wasteland.

- The remarkable structure of the poem that presents a complete whole, or circle, narrating the doom of fallen Satan, then with Book VII opens a new book, a new world, and a new sense of what is at stake, of what can be lost, and where this might lead,
with wandering steps and slow.
Whatever the second half of Paradise Lost is, it is not a circle.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes on the Chariot of the Son

The chariot in Book 6 draws upon the vision in Ezekiel:

The Biblical Merkabah

See also: angelology

According to the verses in Ezekiel and its attendant commentaries, the analogy of the Merkaba image consists of a chariot made of many angels being driven by the "Likeness of a Man." Four angels form the basic structure of the chariot. These angels are called the "Chayot" חיות (lit. living creatures). The bodies of the "Chayot" are like that of a human being, but each of them has four faces, corresponding to the four directions the chariot can go (north, east south and west). The faces are that of a man, a lion, an ox (later changed to a cherub in Ezekiel 10:14) and an eagle. Since there are four angels and each has four faces, there are a total of sixteen faces. Each Chayot angel also has four wings. Two of these wings spread across the length of the chariot and connected with the wings of the angel on the other side. This created a sort of 'box' of wings that formed the perimeter of the chariot. With the remaining two wings, each angel covered its own body. Below, but not attached to the feet of the "Chayot" angels are other angels that are shaped like wheels. These wheel angels, which are described as "a wheel inside of a wheel", are called "Ophanim" אופנים (lit. wheels, cycles or ways). These wheels are not directly under the chariot, but are nearby and along its perimeter. The angel with the face of the man is always on the east side and looks up at the "Likeness of a Man" that drives the chariot. The "Likeness of a Man" sits on a throne made of sapphire.

The Bible later makes mention of a third type of angel found in the Merkaba called "Seraphim" (lit. "burning") angels. These angels appear like flashes of fire continuously ascending and descending. These "Seraphim" angels powered the movement of the chariot. In the hierarchy of these angels, "Seraphim" are the highest, that is, closest to God, followed by the "Chayot", which are followed by the "Ophanim." The chariot is in a constant state of motion, and the energy behind this movement runs according to this hierarchy. The movement of the "Ophanim" is controlled by the "Chayot" while the movement of the "Chayot" is controlled by the "Seraphim". The movement of all the angels of the chariot are controlled by the "Likeness of a Man" on the Throne.

Part of a Hasidic explanation:
The Man on the throne represents God, who is controlling everything that goes on in the world, and how all of the archetypes He set up should interact. The Man on the throne, however, can only drive when the four angels connect their wings. This means that God will not be revealed to us by us looking at all four elements (for instance) as separate and independent entities. However, when one looks at the way that earth, wind, fire and water (for instance) which all oppose each other are able to work together and coexist in complete harmony in the world, this shows that there is really a higher power (God) telling these elements how to act.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


Here's a tune by Stefano Landi that Milton might have heard on his visit to Italy in 1638-39. If nothing else, the stylized structure of the Baroque -- powerful emotion under the pressure of controlled form -- lends itself to the grand gestures and potent speeches of Milton's angels.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Blake's Warring Muse

The perpetual contention between Athens and Jerusalem, Greco-Roman tradition and Biblical Scripture, turned up in concentrated form as I was looking into online sources for Ovid. It came via a well-known line of William Blake's:
the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration.
On the cusp of the metamorphosis of the Enlightenment into the Early Romantic Age, Blake assumes a strong, uncompromising position on the relative merits of the two great traditions. Who needs Homer or Ovid, he asks:
The Stolen & Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid; of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank. & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakespeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword[.] Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashonable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live forever; in Jesus our Lord.
In support of his argument, Blake offers one of his most famous lyrics:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land
Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets
Numbers XI, ch 29.v.

Friday, February 04, 2011

New Dates for Milton

As many know we're beginning Ovid's Metamorphoses at our regular Wednesday time on Feb. 16th. A separate blog will concern itself with those readings. It's entitled - click to go to it.

The Milton Reading Group's new schedule:

Fridays at Gulf Gate 10:15-12:15:
  • February 11 and 25
  • March 11 and 25
  • April 15 and 29

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A less than entirely helpful god

We wondered yesterday about "Nisroc" -- why choose this Assyrian deity precisely to represent the Wimp Brigade among Satan's legions?

in th' assembly next upstood
Nisroc, of Principalities the prime;
As one he stood escap't from cruel fight,
Sore toild, his riv'n Armes to havoc hewn,
And cloudie in aspect thus answering spake. [ 450 ]
Deliverer from new Lords, leader to free
Enjoyment of our right as Gods; yet hard
For Gods, and too unequal work we find
Against unequal arms to fight in paine,
Against unpaind, impassive; from which evil [ 455 ]
Ruin must needs ensue; for what availes
Valour or strength, though matchless, quelld with pain
Which all subdues, and makes remiss the hands
Of Mightiest. Sense of pleasure we may well
Spare out of life perhaps, and not repine, [ 460 ]
But live content, which is the calmest life:
But pain is perfet miserie, the worst
Of evils, and excessive, overturnes
All patience.

Clearly he's averse to pain, although perfectly happy to join the revolt. A quick search turns up the information that he was a god of agriculture, that his name probably signified "eagle," and that he was associated via the Hebrew word "neser," which referred to a plank of wood that King Sennacherib was told came from Noah's Ark. In good pagan form Sennacherib proceeded to worship the plank of wood as an idol.

In fact he was worshipping that very piece of wood when he was murdered by his two sons.

36So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt at Nineveh.

37And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword: and they escaped into the land of Armenia. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead. 2 Kings 19.36-37

Some suggestive patterns: Even as Moloch and Adramelech earlier were associated with the blood sacrifice of young children, here this god does nothing even as the king worshiping him is being murdered by his own children. The story also fits a deep motif in Milton -- the stupidity of idolatry. First Sennacherib was dumb enough to believe some con artist's tale of a tub about a plank, then he bows to its worship, getting assassinated for his pains. (In some versions of the story, his sons kill him by toppling a lamassu -- a heavy stone idol, also purportedly a "protective" deity -- on him.) Finally there's the thread fundamental to Book 6 of the relation of father and sons, originator and offspring, central in so many ways to the poem.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Following Moloc(h)

Gabriel meets "Moloc" in Bk. 6.355:

Mean while in other parts like deeds deservd
Memorial, where the might of Gabriel fought, [ 355 ]
And with fierce Ensignes pierc'd the deep array
Of Moloc furious King, who him defi'd
And at his Chariot wheeles to drag him bound
Threatn'd, nor from the Holie One of Heav'n
Refrein'd his tongue blasphemous; but anon [ 360 ]
Down clov'n to the waste, with shatterd Armes
And uncouth paine fled bellowing.

We readers have met Moloc twice before. The first time was in Bk. 1 -- he got top billing as Satan's henchmen were identified as the pagan gods:

First Moloch, horrid King besmear'd with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud
Thir childrens cries unheard, that past through fire [ 395 ]
To his grim Idol. Him the Ammonite
Worshipt in Rabba and her watry Plain,
In Argob and in Basan, to the stream
Of utmost Arnon. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart [ 400 ]
Of Solomon he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of Hinnom, Tophet thence
And black Gehenna call'd, the Type of Hell. [ 405 ]

And again in Bk 2.43 ff, at the council in Pandemonium, Moloc argues for "open Warr":

He ceas'd, and next him Moloc, Scepter'd King
Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest Spirit
That fought in Heav'n; now fiercer by despair: [ 45 ]
His trust was with th' Eternal to be deem'd
Equal in strength, and rather then be less
Care'd not to be at all; with that care lost
Went all his fear: of God, or Hell, or worse
He reck'd not, and these words thereafter spake. [ 50 ]

My sentence is for open Warr: Of Wiles,
More unexpert, I boast not: them let those
Contrive who need, or when they need, not now.
For while they sit contriving, shall the rest,
Millions that stand in Arms, and longing wait [ 55 ]
The Signal to ascend, sit lingring here
Heav'ns fugitives, and for thir dwelling place
Accept this dark opprobrious Den of shame,
The Prison of his Tyranny who Reigns
By our delay? no, let us rather choose [ 60 ]
Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
O're Heav'ns high Towrs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer; when to meet the noise
Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear [ 65 ]
Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see
Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
Among his Angels; and his Throne it self
Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire,
His own invented Torments. But perhaps [ 70 ]
The way seems difficult and steep to scale
With upright wing against a higher foe.
Let such bethink them, if the sleepy drench
Of that forgetful Lake benumm not still,
That in our proper motion we ascend [ 75 ]
Up to our native seat: descent and fall
To us is adverse. Who but felt of late
When the fierce Foe hung on our brok'n Rear
Insulting, and pursu'd us through the Deep,
With what compulsion and laborious flight [ 80 ]
We sunk thus low? Th' ascent is easie then;
Th' event is fear'd; should we again provoke
Our stronger, some worse way his wrath may find
To our destruction: if there be in Hell
Fear to be worse destroy'd: what can be worse [ 85 ]
Then to dwell here, driv'n out from bliss, condemn'd
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire
Must exercise us without hope of end
The Vassals of his anger, when the Scourge [ 90 ]
Inexorably, and the torturing hour
Calls us to Penance? More destroy'd then thus
We should be quite abolisht and expire.
What fear we then? what doubt we to incense
His utmost ire? which to the highth enrag'd, [ 95 ]
Will either quite consume us, and reduce
To nothing this essential, happier farr
Then miserable to have eternal being:
Or if our substance be indeed Divine,
And cannot cease to be, we are at worst [ 100 ]
On this side nothing; and by proof we feel
Our power sufficient to disturb his Heav'n,
And with perpetual inrodes to Allarme,
Though inaccessible, his fatal Throne:
Which if not Victory is yet Revenge. [ 105 ]

He ended frowning, and his look denounc'd
Desperate revenge, and Battel dangerous
To less then Gods.

Milton was surely aware of the Medieval and Renaissance sources for demons, including grimoires like the Pseudomonarchia Daimonum and The Lesser Key of Solomon. Asmodeus appears in these, but not Moloch.

Note the word that clings to Moloch. First he's the "furious King," then the "horrid King," and then, "the Scepter'd King."
Quite a bit about him can be found in the Old Testament.

Power and the People

At our last meeting, the question came up of Milton's relationship to England's absolute monarchy, its authority rooted in the "divine right of kings," and the turbulent institutional transition going on in 17th century England to a broader parliamentary mode that governed while representing the sovereign will of the people.
Everyone at the moment is finding all sorts of analogs and parallels to the recent actions in Tunisia, Cairo and Jordan, so why not we? In a certain sense, the Middle East today can be seen as beginning that difficult transition that shook England so powerfully 350 years ago.