Meeting Beelzebub I
Bill Long 12/4/09
If Satan is presented as the silver-tongued orator, and his portrait informed by Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound as well as Milton's experience in hearing political debates from the 1640s-1650s, Beelzebub speaks like a risk-averse lawyer who carefully weighs his words and qualifies his points. There is no question that he is on Satan's side; yet he will often give a "spin" or "twist" to Satan's words so that the sting and shock of them are blunted to a small degree. This essay will illustrate his careful use of language.
Let's begin with his opening words (I.128-133):
"O Prince, O Chief of many Throned Powers,
That led th' imbattled Seraphim to War
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endanger'd Heav'n's perpetual King;
And put to proof his high Supremacy,
Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate.."
1) Two words used by Beelzebub in this passage have changed their meaning in the 340+ years since PL appeared. "Imbattled" is now spelled embattled. Our current use of the word, which only first appeared in 1961, is "threatened, assailed." A politician or company leader may be embattled. Yet its original meaning, going back to the 15th century, was "drawn up in battle array, marshalled for fight." The OED gives this quotation from Milton: "On their embattled ranks the waves return," PL XII.213. This is the way the term is used by Beelzebub. Again, "conduct" (noun) is used in its original meaning of "the action of leading; guidance." Its meaning is derived from the Latin "conducere," "to lead." The phrase "Under thy conduct" then means "under thy leadership."
2) Beelzebub subtly softens Satan's bold boast in 105 that the assault of the Rebel Angels on God "shook his throne." He uses two words to buff away the rough edges of Satan's stark word. He says that they "endanger'd" Heaven's King and they "put to proof" his Supremacy. As the OED tells us, "endanger" means "to expose to danger." Can't you see how he has softened Satan? Satan asserts something that really is too bold, too audacious, too unsupportable. Rather than contradicting his "boss," but needing to set the record straight, the "lawyer" Beelzebub gently recalls the word "shook" and replaces it with "endanger." But he is even more subtle. Because the word "endanger" can also mean "cause danger to" (OED def. 6), even the lawyer's changing of the word leaves its meaning a little "up for grabs." So, he has to remove all doubt as to its meaning in the next line (132) by saying that they "put to proof" God's Sovereignty. Now it is clear. The attack only "tested" or "tried" God; it didn't really bring him to danger and it certainly didn't shake his throne. But Beelzebub (and Milton!) has so carefully qualified his words that you scarcely recognize that he has completely redefined his boss's statement.
3) Recall that Satan presumptuously stated that it is "by Fate" that the strength of Gods cannot fail (116-17). Again he has overplayed his verbal hand, and Beelzebub has to correct him gently. How does he do it? By putting fate as only one possibility for how the world is governed: "Whether upheld by strength, or Chance, or Fate" (133). In other words, he is playing the agnostic on the sources of the divine power. It may indeed be Fate, but it could be "Chance" or "strength." This formulation allows for the recognition that God simply may be much too powerful for the Rebel Angels. Thus, by carefully redefining terms, he tries to shift the nature of the discussion. He doesn't correct or attack Satan directly to his face ("You're wrong, boss"); he is much more wily than that. He also injects a note of realism into the situation. Satan will use words to motivate and stir at the expense of an accurate description of the "facts on the ground." Beelzebub carefully brings these facts as one interpretive possibility of the present reality before Satan.
4) Note finally the dexterous use of the word "perpetual" to describe God. He is "Heav'n's perpetual King" (131). Ah, what word is really the right word to describe God's kingship? Of course, it is "eternal." The word "eternal" carries with it the notion of having no beginning and having no end. It is a word that presumes not just longevity but legitimacy. But how about "perpetual"? Well, there is a little ambiguity in the word. It doesn't necessarily imply that God was king from time immemorial. But it does tend to suggest that God will be king from here on out. Yet, the word "perpetual," if we take it directly from the Latin perpetuus, could mean something permanent or something continuous, unbroken, lasting. It doesn't necessarily carry the sense of legitimacy; it might simply describe the facts of the matter--God has always, as far as the Rebel Angels know, been king. Thus, it leaves open the question of whether God deserves this role.
The Use of "And"; Further Qualifications
Beelzebub will actually get to what he wants to say in line 143. The key transitional words are "But what if he..." Before he reaches that point, however, he qualifies, nudges, makes precise and slightly redefines his boss's words. He does this in the next section of his speech (134-142) through the use of the word "and." Having myself been a litigation attorney and law professor, and having composed, as well as read, all kinds of legal documents, I realize that one of the favorite words of lawyers is "and." "And" allows you to include a variety of possibilities that are not captured in a solitary affirmation. Note the profusion of "ands" in these lines. Note also that when Beelzebub gets "revved" up after line 143 that the use of the word "and" dramatically declines. "And" is a qualifying word, a word that allows equivocation and double meanings. So, in these lines he "see[s] and rue[s] the dire event. It led to "sad overthrow and foul defeat." It lost them Heav'n and all this mighty Host, as far indeed as Gods and Heav'nly Essences can perish. Mind and spirit remain strong; and vigor returns; and the happy state is swallowed up in endless misery. Seven "ands." Surely he is struggling mightily to control his message. Indeed, one of the reasons he might be using all the "ands" is that he will, beginning in line 143, without equivocation, give a different take on the issue than Satan. And, that is a fearful prospect. The "and's" then function as a little bit of Beelzebub's "hemming and hawing." He is agreeing with his boss, and then he has to disagree with him. He has gone to the limits of his lawyerly ability to qualify or gently nudge an interpretation. Now, he has to face his real perspective.
Conclusion--One More Qualification
Before we get there, however, there is one more little point to mention. Because we have seen many of Beelzebub's qualifications and redefintions, we shouldn't be surprised if there is yet another one. And there is. You would think that in describing the destruction they experienced the rush of emotions would be so strong that Beelzebub just doesn't have it in him to qualify things more precisely. Yet, he does. They were "laid low" in "horrible destruction,"
"As far as Gods and Heav'nly Essences
Can perish" (138-39).
Isn't that a nice touch that sums up Beelzebub's personality? In the midst of describing the most traumatic moment of the Rebel Angels' existence, he gently probles a deep philosophical question--how much of these ethereal angelic creatures really can perish in such a venture? We have to chuckle a bit; maybe even Milton is smiling. He has so described a personality type..
I need one more essay to finish my reflections on Beelzebub.