Bill Long 2/23/08
Finally, On To The Meeting
Trumpets sound throughout hell to summon a "solemn Counsel" (755). Don't lose sight of the fact of what this council concerns--it will be a planning meeting to enable them to "get back at God" by indirect ways. So, they meet at Pandemonium, "the high Capital of Satan and his Peers" (756-57). The crowd of those responding to the summons is immmense. "With hundreds and with thousands trooping came/ Attended" (760-61). Every available space was taken; the gates were thronged and the porches overflowing. The spacious hall "thick swarm'd, both on the ground and in the air" (767). It is reminiscent of the swarming hordes of Achilles' men, the Myrmidons (which means "the ants") who swarmed to respond to his call for battle in the Iliad. It was an "awful" (i.e., awe-inspiring) sight. So as not to miss the intense Homeric character of this swarming, Milton uses a simile of bees:
In spring time, when the Sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth thir populous youth about the Hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Flie to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,
The suburb of thir Straw-built Citadel,
New rub'd with Balm, expatiate and confer
Thir State affairs," (768-775).
Listen to the way that Homer describes the clustering of the people in Iliad II, 87-90:
"Even as the tribes of thronging bees go forth from some hollow rock, ever coming on afresh, and in clusters over the flowers of spring fly in throngs, some here, some there; even so from the ships and huts before the low sea-beach marched forth in companies their many tribes to the place of gathering."
The word "expatiate" in line 774 of Milton usually means, in our day, to "speak or write at some length." But its original meaning, which Milton uses here, is taken from the Latin "ex" and "spatiari" (to walk about) and means "to walk about at large, to roam without restraint; to move about freely in space." "Balm" in l. 774 refers not to the resinous substance we imagine but to a kind of sulphur, which was a product of the construction (see OED under sulphur 1d.). Both pictures have their raw and emotive power, though I think Milton's is a little more "ponderous" than Homer's or, alternatively, Homer is more "lithe" than Milton.
But just as Milton seems to be getting a little more ponderous than Homer, he comes along with a strikingly original line or image, whose purpose it is to make all the teeming multitude of spirits "fit" in a confined space. He says:
"So thick the aerie crowd
Swarm'd and were straitn'd; till the Signal giv'n.
Behold a wonder! they but now who seem'd
In bigness to surpass Earths Giant Sons
Now less then smallest Dwarfs," (775-79).
In other words, they were all changed or transformed from large creatures to very tiny ones so that the entire crowd could be accommodated. Since Satan some day will be able to transform himself as an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14), it isn't unusual for Milton to pick upon a theme like that to suggest transformation in Hell. How small are these fallen creatures? Well, the are like the "Pigmean Race" beyond the "Indian Mount" or "Faery Elves" (781). that is, they are very small.
But it isn't enough for Milton just to say that they were as small as "Faery Elves." He has to be "Homeric" about it by giving us more information, more "data" about a "sighting" of such an elf. These are the Faery Elves:
"Whose midnight Revels, by a Forrest side
Or Fountain some belated Peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over-head the Moon
Sits Arbitress, and neerer to the Earth
Wheels her pale course, they on thir mirth and dance
Intent, with jocond Music charm his ear;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds," (782-88).
This is nothing other than a most delightful digression on Faeries which are either seen or which a peasant "dreams he sees." In these last three words is a picture. Has Milton read accounts of peasants dancing to "jocund Music" at night or sleeping and dreaming that he is doing this? Now we are being taken to a world of joyous dance and dreaming, while the supposed reason for the digression was only the smallness of the spirits in Hell. I wonder if Milton is also trying to suggest that in the gathering of the evil spirits there is a sort of tone in the air like the gathering of the peasants in their "mirth and dance"? Many commentators point to this passage as Milton's echoing of Bottom's dream in Shakespeare's MND IV.1.
Most of the spirits then congregated "without number" in the Hall of that "infernal Court" (792). But it was within the Court that the action was about to unfold. There the "great Seraphic Lords and Cherubim" sat in a secret conclave. There were 1000 "Demi-Gods on golden seats,/ Frequent and full," (787-98). The word "frequent," which we only associate with the idea "often," means something different here. Its first meaning in the OED, going back to the 16th century, is "Of persons, an assembly, etc.: Assembled in great numbers, crowded, full." It often is used in the phrase full and frequent, though Milton reverses that in line 798. Holland, in his 1606 translation of Suetonius, uses this phrase: "He..in a ful and frequent assemblie..besought the faithfull helpe and assistance of his soldiers." Thus, we have a crowded assembly. Silence reigns for a moment, but there will soon be lots of talk--in Book II.
I began these essays only with the intention of making clear the origin and meaning of "pandemonium." I think I did that well enough, in the opening few lines of the first essay. But, as you see, I just couldn't resist diving into Milton. It makes me almost wonder if I should just put down my work for a few weeks and patiently work through this classic--and then memorize it. What do you think?
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long