The Father and Son in Book III (I)
Bill Long 11/25/09
Their Conversation in III.135-216
Once God the Father has finished his great apologia of lines 80-134, three things happen: (1) a brief interlude (135-143); (2) the response of the Son (144-166); and (3) God's further development of the idea of human freedom and sin (167-216). Each calls for extensive comment, but our longest reflection will be on (3).
The Brief Interlude (135-143)
Dramatic speeches by lofty characters require some "room" after completion, at least in epic, in order to let them "sink in." These interludes also allow an author to put the speech in the proper perspective or "frame." After all, the ruler of the universe has just deftly shifted blame for human sin from Himself to the seemingly helpless (and absent, by the way) Mankind; this is a magnificently huge move theologically, and it requires a little "down time" before the narrative can proceed. So, we have an interlude. Instead of angelic beings adding to a chorus of praise here, we have an ambrosial smell diffused through heaven.
"Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill'd
All Heav'n, and in the blessed Spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffus'd," 135-137.
After listening to Prof. John Rogers' lecture on Book I of PL (transcript here), I became aware, for the first time, of the function of "diffusion" or "filling" language in PL. Rogers argues that Milton's theology and verse are married when he speaks like this. As a "Monist" or "vitalist" (in Rogers' mind), Milton believed that Spirit was not just present in the universe but rather infused all things, completely diffusing itself in every part of every creature. This theology is questionable from the perspective of orthodoxy, which posits a gap or distance between God and the creature; but it adds a note of excitement or even exhilaration to Milton's ideas, because it suggests that all things are alive, in every part, filled as they are with the Spirit of God.
This belief was also reflected literarily through Milton's adoption of blank verse and, in technical poetic jargon, the enjambment of his lines. Blank verse means that the lines don't rhyme; enjambment describes "run-on" lines, lines that continue their thought from one line to the next. The tradition of poetry in English before Milton did just the opposite--lines needed to rhyme, and the thought of the line naturally ended at the completion of the line. Here is a example from Christopher Marlowe's (1564-1593) famous "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:
"There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals."
Even though this poem is one of the best-known and beloved love poems in English, we see a kind of plodding, predictable, 'da-dum, da-dum, and whoops, a rhyme,' structure in it. We are not caught up in the concepts or swept away in love; we just look at the poet's method, see him in our mind's eye occasionally wandering around his room saying "Hm, what rhymes with 'fall,'" and then realize the choice he made. "Wow, he chose madrigal, rather than ball or stall or a host of other words." Or, to change the analogy, it is as if an actor is trying to act some great lines, but has a tear in his garments, and we notice his undergarments to the detriment of what he is trying to say. Such is the vulnerability and weakness of the English poem, according to Milton, when he writes PL in the 1660s.
By writing enjambed rather than "end-stopped" lines, Milton showed that ideas, rather than being "stopped up" at the end of the line, could "flow" from one line to the next, infusing each line in its completeness with the idea he was developing. Thus, a poem could now be analogized to the human body (my idea; Rogers doesn't mention this)--where the whole poem is the whole person, and each part of it can be filled with all the fulness of meaning. Thus, Milton's poetic method allows fulness in every line, or every word. We have here the English poetic equivalent of the Hebrew concept lying behind the composition of the Midrashim in the early Middle Ages. These documents give the most detailed interpretation of, principally, the Pentateuch. The authors of a Midrash can stop on each word, numbering the letters, and even examining the shape of the letters, so as to find the fulness of divinity and divine wisdom in each letter, or each word, or each verse, etc. Milton's transformation of the English poetic tradition through blank verse and enjambment allowed the same kind of diffusion of the divine, so to speak, in each word, syllable, line or thought of the poem. What ambition! But it is ambition that certainly fits our poet, who "modestly" says that he is, in PL, pursuing "Things unattempted yet in Rhyme or Prose," (I.16).
So, when I read words suggesting that fragrances fill "All Heav'n" or that a sense of joy ineffable is "diffus'd," I think of a theology of the spreading presence, not of a miasmic threat or plague, but of the beneficent impulses of the Spirit, captured in blank verse and enjambed lines.
A Word on the Son
But there is one other idea that merits notice in these nine lines. We are introduced for the first time in PL to the Son, who will be a central figure in the drama of redemption. Two things are worth mentioning about the Son. First is the way that Milton relies on Scripture for the description of the Son. When he says that "in him all his Father shone/ Substantially express'd," (139-140), he is picking up suggestive language from Heb. 1:3, 'Who being the brightness of the glory, and the engraved form of his person, and bearing up all things by his mighty word," (Geneva Bible of 1599--Milton's Bible) and possibly from Col. 2: 9, "For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." When God commends the Son later in the book (beginning at lines 167), God will also draw upon images of the Son from Scripture. Second, Milton will emphasize the compassion or love of God appearing in Christ. This is a nice touch, after God has just finishing slamming Mankind pretty severely in his great apologia.
As usual, I didn't get too far in my exposition; now let's turn to Christ's first words and God's response.