Some of Milton's Choice Lines
Bill Long 4/15/08
From Book I of Paradise Lost
I put some of my Milton essays under "reviews" or "current events" because his lines are what I am working on at the present. But, on further thought, I am planning to move all my Milton stuff to the "Homer" page, and make it a "Homer/Milton" page--a sort of "epic" page. Soon. But before I do that, I want to pursue another idea--the way that words or phrases open up imaginative vistas for us. A distinction here is necessary. I often write on words, and often seemingly obscure words, because I am convinced that they open new worlds for us. But Milton's words don't do that so much as they create living pictures. I am making a distinction between "new worlds" that words open and "imaginative pictures" that Milton's words suggest.
He creates his pictures not simply through choice phrases but also through parenthesis (such as at I.763-66) or simile (such as I.768-75). In this essay, however, I want to let my mind wander to the images that his brief phrases suggest for me. The power of epic, or any imaginative writing, is its ability not only to take you out of your own world and pluck you into the "epic" world but also to take you out of that epic world to return you to your world or yet other worlds through the use of dramatic language. This essay will illustrate this latter point.
Miltonic Lines--a Preliminary Example
An example will clarify what I mean. When Satan wakes up and realizes that he is in Hell, a strange and forbidding place, where there is darkness and void all around, his thoughts return to his former situation in heaven, and he is depresed. As Milton says, "for now the thought/ Both of lost happiness and lasting pain/ Torments him" (I.54-56). What does he do in that situation? Milton's words follow:
"round he throws his baleful eyes" (I.56)...
"Baleful" means malignant or malevolent. So, we see Satan, lying in defeat and dishevelment on the lake of fire, in pain and inner distress, looking around. But Milton's description of him in these words, "round he throws his baleful eyes," is instantly precious. We not only imagine him looking furtively and frustratingly around, seeing nothing of the glory of his former circumstances, but we then "leave" Satan in his pain and imagine people in our own day or world as they cast their eyes in one direction and another--either looking for enjoyment or escape. But what do we see in people's eyes? And in what contexts do we look at their eyes? Youth in church cast their desperate eyes around, looking for means of escape. Young people at dances cast their eyes lustfully around, looking to connect with someone. Older people trapped in long lines cast their glances around in hope that they will be delivered from their confinement. There are several "lookers' contexts" in our world today, where people carefully "check out" each other. People cast their eyes around them for all kinds of reasons in all types of circumstances. Milton gives us "permission" to note and to characterize the ways that people use their eyes... So, what do you see as you cast your eyes around?
Other Miltonic Lines
The illuminating or suggestive Miltonic lines don't all have to be "serious," like the preceding. Some of them border on the nonsensical or the incomplete in thought but are, nevertheless, suggestive for me. Such, for example, is:
"Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heav'n (I.678-80)...
Two things from these lines rivet my attention, make me smile and even encourage me to use the lines. I like the opening words "Mammon led them on," and I often utter these as I am heading out the door in the morning. It means nothing necessarily to me, but is a phrase that I utter to get myself going in the morning. Then, the description of him as the "least erected" is doubly suggestive. On the one hand it points to the biblical use of the word as "money," so that Mammon is associated with "money" even in heaven. That means that he more closely looked at heaven's pavement, foreshadowing, as it were, the fault with which he would become tarred once he fell. But "least erected" also has a sexual meaning, and you can "play" with that term however you want. He is hunched over thinking about the glories of heaven's pavement, making note of the various golden veins in the rocks under his feet. But, by being bent over and "least erected," perhaps he also loses whatever sexual drive he had (do angels have it?), and became "least erected." So, as I head out the door, I say "Mammon led them on." As I wonder about people's preoccupations in life, the words "least erected" often come to mind. Milton helps me out...
Darkness Visible (I.63)
When Satan is lolling around in hell, with Beelzebub weltering by his side, he sees "a Dungeon horrible." There are flames all around, but here is how Milton describes it:
"A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible..."
Hell is a dark dungeon; Hell is a location full of flames. How can the contradiction be understood or expressed? Well, Milton does it through the lines "darkness visible." I still don't know if I can get a "picture" of what this entails. Darkness is, by definition, the absence of light, invisibility. So, what can "darkness visible" possibly mean? Perhaps he is trying to indicate to us that in this realm of Hell we have contradictions galore, antinomies unresolved, paradoxes which can be mentioned in language but never really "solved." Darkness visible is the phrase that captures it. Maybe when I am in my confusion, and confusion really does characterize the human experience of living, I am in my "darkness visible." let's think of this as a synonym for confusion and see where it takes us...
Finishing with "Pendent by Subtle Magic"
Several other Book I phrases beckon me on, but I will close with this one (line 727). When he describes the city in Hell built by Mulciber (as yet unnamed in line 727), he talks about the "ascending pile," or the impressive outward form of the city, but then he decides to look to the roof or ceiling of the city. He writes:
"from the arched roof,
Pendent by subtle Magic many a row
Of Starry Lamps and blazing Cressets fed..."
The literal picture he is working on is the reality of lights hanging from some kind of invisible chandeliers in the demonic ceiling. But they are "pendent by subtle Magic." The word "subtle," for Milton, means "not easily grasped or understood; intricate, abstruse." In other words, he sees these lamps and cressets hanging high above, but it isn't quite clear how they are attached to the vault of Hell. But then I let the phrase "pendent by subtle Magic" separate from its original context and begin to impress me as an independent phrase. What kinds of things "hang" in our culture? And, can we always see the things by which they hang? Do they "hang" as it were, by "subtle Magic"? We go to an opera, and there are descending characters (such as in the Magic Flute). We have "ceiling mikes" that pick up words spoken on stage, even though we can't see the microphones. But then we have hanging baskets of flowers, pendulous breasts, and other "pendent" features of humans, the natural world and the created world. When things look like they are "hanging," we stop our lives and look at what we see before us.
Milton's phrases both take us into the reality he is describing, but then they take us out of them too. By so writing, he is capturing our mind in every part of his writing. We, too, would do well to try to communicate with the same level of earnestness, directness, as well as allusive suggestiveness.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long