The Demonic Troops I.522-50 (I)
Bill Long 12/15/09
Raising Their Fainted Courage
Even though the Fallen Angels were inspired and shamed into brisk obedience by Satan, they remained dejected and defeated. Yet as this passage progresses, the confidence of Satan raises their "fainted" courage (the 2nd edition has "fainting"), and they raise their standards and respond with a "shout that tore Hell's concave" (542). Satan is, for Milton, the quintessential motivational speaker, relying on sound and fury rather than fact and argument. In Milton's words, he spoke with "high words that bore/ Semblance of worth, not substance" (528-29). The multiple images of military readiness in this passage, such as raising the standards, intoning music and shouts, and brandishing spears, helmets and shields, are chiefly derived from epic predecessors, such as the Italian Torquato Tasso, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the scene also arose from Milton's memories of the English Civil War. In these two essays I will examine some of Milton's evocative words, words that make this passage sing like few others in PL; examine Satan's mental state in this section; and try to capture the brilliant flourish of sight and sounds on the "burnt soil" (562).
Milton is briliant, among other things, because of his careful, classical, rhetorically rich and radical (i.e., "root-oriented") use of English. Several words make us pause. First, from an earlier passage, Milton talked about the "luxurious cities" where Belial rules (498). By this he doesn't mean lavish or wealthy; he reaches back to the original meaning of "luxurious," which means "lascivious, lecherous, unchaste" (OED, s.v. Def. 1). Then, there are a few examples of hendiadys or "one (concept) through two" (words). The gathering Rebel Angels are said to be "downcast and damp" (523), a particularly felicitous expression, where "damp" means, in accodance with its old meaning, "affected with or showing stupefaction or depression of spirits; dazed.." The verb "damp" also had an ancient meaning of "to suffocate," which survives today in the phrase "to damp down a furnace."
The OED gives our passage as a warrant for this meaning. Then, just outside this passage is the phrase "dreadful and dazzling" or, more specifically "dreadful length and dazzling Arms" (564). I love alliterative hendiadys, don't you? Later still in Book I, far beyond our passage, is the phrase "frequent and full," which denotes the crowded situation of the demons pressing together to get into their conclave hall (I.797).
But there is much more than this. I especially like two literary devices Milton uses that make his words and descriptions scintillate: (1) vivid adjectives which build up like a turgid volcano, which then alternate with (2) action or motion verbs. Thus, in these lines we have: "wonted pride" (527) and a "mighty Standard" and "proud honor" (533). Azazel is called a "Cherub tall" (534) who unfurls with his "glittering staff" (535) the Imperial Ensign. While this was happening there arose "sonorous metal" blowling "Martial sounds" (540). In response to Satan's call arose a "Forest huge" of spears, along with "thronging Helms" and "serried Shields" of "depth immeasurable" (547-49). Milton's careful selection of adjectives adds panache, specificity and visual power to his descriptions. I believe that if you take time to study Milton's adjectives that you become a better speaker and clearer thinker. You tend to look for ways to describe more precisely what you see.
A careful use of adjectives vivifies a scene, but when this is combined with streaming verbs and participles, we get the impression of vigorous movement, along with penetrating description. For example, the glittering Staff "Shone like a meteor streaming to the Wind" (537). The shout of the crowd "tore Hell's Concave" (542). The shout was so loud it "Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night" (543).
By the time you have let these words and devices sink into your mind, you realize the key to Milton's incredible poetic energy and descriptive genius: he alters his devices, using some to create vivid pictures, others to stress intense action, others still to add a rhythmic sonority that makes his words almost sing. What do you pick up about his style in these lines?
Satan's Mental Condition
One thing that makes Milton's picture of Satan so compelling is that he (Milton) is careful to limn Satan's mental state as his description develops. As early as line 125 we have the "Apostate Angel" speaking and described as "in pain/ Vaunting aloud, but rackt with deep despair." Thus, from the beginning we see Satan as a 'torn' creature. On the one hand he is the leader of the Rebel Angels, and the leader needs to present an upbeat assessment of things as well as have skill in inspiring troops to action. Satan has this characteristic in spades, and he will demonstrate it over and over again. Yet, Milton is careful to point out the inner despair that shakes Satan's spirit. He is desperate because he remembers so much--especially the glory that was once his. He realizes, too, that even if he tried to repent and assume his former position, he couldn't maintain the attempt to repent. The temptation to rebel would just be too strong. Thus, he is lost, doomed, condemned. And he knows it. So also, in our passage, this inner tearing is described:
"on his count'nance cast
Like doubtful hue" (526-27)...
i.e., reflecting both the despair of his troops and Satan's returning confidence. Book IV, especially, will explore Satan's inner struggles.
But Satan seems to have taken the hortatory advice of St. Paul when he says:
"we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed," II Cor. 4:8-9.
Too bad, for him, that he couldn't also have adopted the next verse from Paul:
"always carrying in the body th edeath of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies," II Cor. 4:10.
Satan will be the irrepressible spirit, the one who only stays down for a moment, who realizes that others need and want him to lead them from their seething prison.
One more essay finishes my thoughts.