The Demonic Troops II
Bill Long 12/15/09
I.522-50; Sights and Sounds of Battle Preparation
Milton really lets out all the stops as he describes the gradual return to senses and the rising martial spirit of the Rebel Angels. Rhetorical devices abound. Using polyptoton, he describes the Angels as "Not in despair, to have found themselves not lost/ In loss itself" (525-26). Then, second, he uses language and forms from earlier writers. He imitates Spenser when he describes Satan as speaking in words "that bore/ Semblance of worth, not substance." Hear Spenser: "Full lively is the semblant, though the substance dead," FQ II.9.2. Or, when describing the streaming banners, overlapping swords, terrible shout and thronging helmets, he seems to follow the lead of Tasso:
"Loose in the wind waved their ensigns light,
Trembled the plumes that on their crests were set;
Their arms, impresses, colors, gold and stone,
'Gainst the sun beams smil'd, flamed, sparkled, shone," Jerusalem Delivered, Canto 20, Stanza 28.
Milton also displays his learning by drawing on non-epic, theological sources for some of his insights. Note the unusual appearance in line 534 of the name of Satan's ensign bearer: Azazel. This "Cherub tall" is mentioned in Leviticus 16 and appears to be the "scapegoat" on whom the sins of Israel are cast, before it is driven out in the wilderness. So, what is the connection between this creature and the Azazel in Hell? And why would Azazel hold this position "as of right" in Hell?
We (or at least I) can't get full clarity on this one. Some have suggested that the name "Azazel" means "brave in retreating" and so would be a "proper appellation for the standard bearer to the fall'n Angels." So says Thomas Newton in his 1750 notes on PL. But we can go a step further. By the time of the late Middle Ages there was a lot of speculation about the role of Azazel in Jewish and Christian theology. In the work of the great Hebraist Johann Reuchlin (late 15th-early 16th century; Book III of The Cabbalistic Art), he talks about four standard bearers commanding the demons:
"In exercitu Dei quattour antesignani..Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael..In exercitu pariter Satanae lattissima gerunt signiferi ultores vela..Samael, Azazel, Azahel, Mahazel.."
We don't have to assume Milton read this rather obscure work of Reuchlin. The Englishman Robert Fludd, slightly older than Milton, however, took over Reuchlin's categories and stressed these four demons as attacking humanity's health (Robert West, "The Names of Milton's Angels," Studies in Philology 47 (1950), 218). Thus, the tradition was out there for Milton, but we don't know why he picked on Azazel for this illustrious position.. And, we don't really know why he had this position "as of right." Any ideas?
The Ideas and Our Senses
But the utter sensuality of the scene arrests us. We see the Satanic ensign shining like the meteor streaming to the wind. We hear the cacophonous shout that tears through Hell and the Chaos above; we strain to hear the richly sonorous martial sounds of the trumpets. We still feel the heat that makes their "painful steps" difficult. It is as if the language of Milton is as compressed as the forest of spears that pressed closely together in "thick array/ Of depth immeasurable.." (548-49). Each phrase explodes with meaning, as full in each syllable as the Angelic shout that penetrates the barriers of Hell. We see the "Orient colors,"-- the radiant pinks and yellows of the sky at daybreak. And, lest we forget, we see and hear all of this in the nether gloom of Hell. They are not standing on the Plains of Marathon or even next to Bonnie Prince Charlie before his loss at the Battle of Culloden. They are in the deepest, darkest, dankest, dampest, most depressed setting in the universe. Yet, still the colors fly, and the voices rise, and the energy returns, and the spears connect, and the helmets glisten and the shields overlap.
I have argued elsewhere that Milton's abandonment of rhyme was not just a literary but also a philosophical choice. By abandoning rhyme, he freed up the line and the thought to express meaning in any place of the line. Pause and power could be in any syllable of the iambic pentameter. Fullness of meaning could reside any place in the line. This passage is one of the prime expressions of this philosophy, because the words simply leap off the page at us, filing our imagination with vivid pictures even as the words are woven in such a tight literary weave. Where comes such immense verbal energy? Perhaps only a blind man can tell us. Perhaps his prayer for illumination, which we won't examine until Book III, in which he asks the spirit to "plant eyes" for him internally (III.53), was answered two books before he even prayed the prayer. But Milton's God is big enough even to honor retroactive prayer...