Wordplay and Humor in PL, Book I
Bill Long 1/3/12
Humor, even a possible racy sexual image, isn't something one expects from the author of Paradise Lost. After all, this blind hyper-Puritan, who composed the poem with the help of amanuenses after his nightly sessions of inspiration by the Muses/Spirt, handled, in Book I, topics of immense sadness and gravity. Here we have the "Fall" of the rebel Angels (though, from examining I. 45, it might be more appropriate to call it the "Hurl" of Satan and his rout), the somber assessment of their situation, the parade of lead demons and, finally, the building of Pandemonium, the "high capitol of Satan and his peers," 756-57. Yet, several times in Book I Milton uses his literary touch not just to get in digs at possible foes (for example, calling the great demonic consultation in Hell a "conclave," which is the Roman Catholic name for an important gathering of Cardinals, 795), but also to make us smile. Here are six examples.
Satan and Beelzebub, also called Satan's "bold compeer" (I.127, among other names), are discussing their exclusion from God's presence and their new digs on the lake of fire. Moved by pride and a sense of injured merit (98), Satan rebelled against the "throne and monarchy of God" (42). God handily defeated the motley crew against him assembled (even though Satan repeatedly emphasized that God's throne was either shaken (105) or endangered (131)), and cast them out of heaven. Satan's words are memorable: "and till then (i.e., our revolt) who knew the force of those dire arms?" (93-94) Picking up on the notion of "force" about 50 lines later, Beelzebub confesses that God indeed is almighty:
"But what if he our conqueror (whom I now
Of force believe almighty, since no less/ Than such
could have o'erpow'red such force as ours" (143ff.)
"Of force" is a phrase meaning "of necessity, on compulsion, unavoidably" (OED, s. v. def. 19). So Milton plays on the concept of force as a collected body of troops, as a manifestation of strength (94) and, using "of force," as a necessary situation. And, even within line 144 is a slight pun. Usually we think of belief as something freely chosen. Even a Calvinist recognizes the activity of the human will in believing. But the rebel angels "of force" "believe." They do by compulsion what is done freely.
After speaking back and forth for about 100 lines, Satan and Beelzebub decide to get off the burning lake onto the sizzling soil. Satan rises "from off the pool" (221) and then "with expanded wings he steers his flight aloft" (225-26). That must have been quite some sight. He flies aloft into the dusky air,
"That felt unusual weight, till on dry land
He lights..." (227-28).
The parenthetical statement about feeling unusual weight or heaviness is nicely complemented by the fact that Satan soon "lights" or lands. Other words were available; Milton chose the funnier.
Beelzebub encourages Satan to address the prostrate multitude of rebel angels, scattered throughout the vast and boundless deep. Upon hearing Satan's voice, Beelzebub assures Satan, they will quickly "resume new courage and revive." Formerly the two leaders were
"...astounded and amazed,
No wonder, fallen such a pernicious highth."
Though it might be interesting to study all the times that Milton uses the prefix "re" in Book I, or study his heavy use of Latinisms or root meanings for words (pernicious here is derived from per--meaning "through" and nec/nex, meaning "deadly" or "devastating" or death"), I focus here on how the rebel angels were "astounded" and "amazed." These are strong words, expressing their stupor, astonishment, or stupefaction. Then follows the familiar phrase "no wonder..." The first definition of the word "wonder" in the OED is "something that causes astonishment." No wonder that we were wondering, so to speak.
This passage provides what is probably a sexual pun. During the "roll call" of the rebel leaders, who later, according to Milton (following a long Christian tradition) became demons that actuated the worship of pagan deities around ancient Israel, he tells us about the first two: Moloch and Chemos. The former was a demon who demanded child sacrifice, the latter forced his followers to particpate in "lustful orgies" (415). They both had temples next to each other on the "hill of scandal" (416), i.e., the Temple Mount of Israel. So, Chemos' temple was
"....by the grove of
Moloch homicide, lust hard by hate" (417-18).
There are other ways to say that two things stand in close proximity to each other. Just before this, for example (402), he mentions how Moloch's temple was "right against the temple of God." The phrase "hard by" both suggests propinqiuity and arousal. Oh, Milton!
The number of demons in hell was immense. Sometimes Milton talks about an innumerable host, sometimes of millions, other times of thousands. In any case, when Satan, a seasoned general, darted his "experienced eye" (568) along and traverse the entire battalion, his heart distended with pride, for
"...never since created man
met such embodied force, as named with these
Could merit more than that small infantry
Warred on by cranes" (573-76).
Milton's reference is to a an army of pygmies attacked by cranes in at the beginning of the third book of the Iliad. The pygmies were tiny; they were a small "infantry." Behind the word "infantry" is "infant," the tiniest of human creatures. Small infantries; pygmy warriors. Big laugh.
Speaking of size, we have, in the last lines of Book I of PL, a description of a sudden transformation of the rebel angels. They were thronging the new capitol of Pandemonium, filling every space. Suddenly, at a signal given (775),
"...they who now but seemed
In bigness to surpass Earth's giant sons
Now less than smallest dwarfs..." (777-79).
Summarizing this sudden and remarkable transformation a few lines later, Milton says:
"Thus incorporeal spirits to smallest forms
Reduced their shapes immese, and were at large
Though without number" (789-91).
On other occasions, he can use the phrase "at large" without any pun being either intended or interpreted (such as line 213) but here we have the tiny creatures being at large. Sort of like a headline we might imagine from the Land of Oz: "Munchkin killer, still at large..." Ah, and that sentence has its ambiguities, but you can interpret it in the way it makes sense for me!