Numbers and Names II
Bill Long 12/10/09
These lines probe a transition in Milton's attention from the number of the Rebel Angels that fill up the vast vale of Hell to their names or lack of names. This issue is significant because he will presently move to a catalogue of the leaders in Hell, listing them by name. The naming catalogue is a staple of epic; thus Milton shows his familiarity and commitment to that tradition. But by introducing the names of the bad Angels, he introduces a theological problem, of which he is aware, a problem which creates an anachronism for him--i.e, how can Rebel Angels receive names such as Moloch or Baal in pre-creation time when they wouldn't actually receive those names until people had begun to worship them in historical time? This essay explores the last simile on innumerability of the bad Angels and then probes the theological problem of the transition from number to name.
One More Simile
The simile he uses in 351-55 reminds us of the historical/romantic appeal to Oleus Magnus' history to describe the story of sinking an anchor into a huge sea beast (lines 200-08). Here he uses the story of the teeming hordes that poured from the "frozen loins" of the North to describe the crowds of Rebel Angels in Hell. I like the contrast between the productivity of both the frozen loins and the burning Hell. Milton's reference to the North is also interesting because it reflects the belief of the time that the Northern tribes of Europe were by far the most fruitful tribes in the world. Now, in 2010, two fears regarding population grip us: (1) that Northern European nations are experiencing the "birth death," i.e., the failure to reproduce themselves with their own historic ethnic stock; and (2) that the birthrates of Southern nations (i.e., African) and Middle Eastern nations are so high that they will soon "take over" the Northern countries. Thus, we see how a simile no longer has much meaning, even though it was popular at the time. Compare, for example, the words of the Fairie Queene, from about 70 years before PL:
"And overflow'd all countries far away,
Like Noye's great flood with their importune sway," Book II, Canto 10, Stanza 15.
Moving to Names
The leaders of the rebel horde make haste to be present with Satan, "Thir great commander" (358). But who are they? Milton uses a biblical reference to say that though they were, at one time, powerful in Heaven, their names had been erased from the Books of Life since the rebellion (Rev. 21:27). This is a nice touch, a touch of precision that actually presents a problem for Milton. For, if they had names before the rebellion, and lost them after the rebellion, how can we, and especially Milton, identify them? His problem is compounded because he stands in a tradition, stretching back at least as far as the 4th century Church historian Eusebius, that the gods of the nations outside of Israel really were demons assuming idolatrous forms. These demons were then identified with the "helpers" of Satan in Hell--the Rebel Angels. Thus, there was enormous pressure on Milton (perhaps he really could have taken no other path) to identify the Rebel Angels with the gods of the nations. But we don't learn about these gods until the people of those lands "discovered" or "invented" them. This is why Milton says:
"Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new names" (364-65).
The solution he chooses is to call them the names which they later would assume among men. But he leaves it there, and doesn't really get into the notion of whether there is a "pre-existent Moloch" or "Baal" who just is "recognized" by the heathen people when they set up their religions. He as much says, 'This is what they will be called later; now back to my narrative.'
The Long Reflection on Romans 1
Between the Rebel Angels' losing their original names and getting new names much later, Milton has to show a process of human devolution to the point where humans become idolatrous. Why? Because idolatry, in the Bible and in Milton's mind, doesn't happen unless people have first turned away from the worship of God to adore the lower creatures. Helping him to limn this degeneration is St. Paul. From lines 366-374 Milton closely folllows the language and spirit of Romans 1:20ff. In Romans 1:18-3:21 Paul is arguing for the guilt of all humanity before God. It is a very important argument for him, since it lays the groundwork for his great doctrine of justification by faith (Romans 5), the cornerstone of the Christian doctrine of salvation. St. Paul has constructed a tightly argued and rhetorically powerful condemnation of all people, beginning in Romans 1:18. The first thing he shows is that people forsook their creator and
"exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a moral human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles," Rom. 1:23.
Listen to Milton's language:
"they corrupted to forsake
God their Creator, and th' invisible
Glory of him that made them, to transform
Oft to the Image of a Brute..," 368-71.
Again, as with the story of the locust plague from Exodus 10, Milton shows himself minutely engaged with the text of Scripture. It provides not just a doctrinal foundation for him; it also provides vivid literary images.
Now, finally, we are ready to greet these Rebel Angels that heeded the call of their general Satan. The Muse needs to be invoked again, for this will take some doing (375). The next essay will introduce you to the biblical rogues' catalogue of leaders of the bad Angels.