Bill Long 12/18/09
Moving the Rebel Angels to Action; I.622-62
Satan's speech to the roused Rebel Angels will lead to their excited drawing of swords (663-69) and their feverish construction of Pandemonium, the "high Capitol/ Of Satan and his Peers," 756-57. What does he say, and how does Milton shape the language, of this most important speech in 622-62? First, even before we begin, we note Satan's face. Two points are noteworthy: (1) he "Darts his experienced eye" (568) throughout the throng; (2) his face is scarred, carved out by divine thunderbolts (601).
(1) Satan's eye is everything. It allows him to take stock of numbers, shape, form, and expressions of his followers. We have his "experienced" eye here "darting," and we know we have a master of vision before us. How much this contrasts with Milton's brilliant focusing on Satan's eye 500 lines earlier, when he is just acclimatizing himself to Hell. There it says, "Round he throws his baleful eyes..." (56) "Baleful" means "full of malign, deadly or noxious influence; pernicious, destructive, malignant.." In this early scene Satan is desperate, confused, overwhelmed, and so all he can do is throw those baleful eyes. But here, with the serried ranks giving him obeisance, he darts an experienced eye. (2) But Satan is also a marked Angel. He not only suffered injury in the battle, but his face bears the scars of the fight. Milton's words are worth memorizing:
"but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrench'd," 600-01.
The verb "intrench/entrench" means "to make a trench" or "to furrow." This is also the language field Milton will use directly after the speech, as the Angels respond with alacrity to make deep furrows in the earth to mine gold and other precious metals for their new home. But here we see them on Satan's face. He doesn't have to stain it with war paint in order to scare off onlookers. All you have to do is look at him, and you are terrified. His deeply etched scars even frighten us as we read.
Finally, this dauntless warrior speaks. Five features of his words call for comment:
(1) He sets the tone by his double use, in the first four lines, of the little word "dire." The event was "dire," and "dire" change resulted (624-25). It is a very severe word, whose original meaning is worse than our use today. It used to mean "causing or attended by great fear or terrible suffering." Now it suggests something mildly uncomfortable. I think the tone Satan wants to set here is one of realism but not despair. By calling attention to their severe condition, he is able to win the confidence of the Rebel Angels. They see him as a "realist," one who shares their pain and, therefore, one who can lead them from their defeated condition. This is important because, as I now show, he will resort to deception and misstatement for his next point.
(2) Once he has established his "connection" to them, he can now deceive them with the same kind of deception he tried to use on Beelzebub earlier. The first way he does this is to express surprise that they could have lost in the war against God (630). So much power; how could we possibly have suffered defeat? Maybe he actually thought that his chances were good; otherwise he would not have rebelled. But he uses this apparent disbelief to rouse them for further action. Second, he speaks of the number of Angels rebelling. These "puissant Legions" had "emptied Heaven" (632-33). But Satan knows that he didn't command even a majority of the Angels in heaven. Later he will say that when he has won over Man to his side he might have "more than half" of the spirits on earth and heaven (IV.112). Thus, he knows that his revolt is a minority movement. Here he speaks of it as "emptying" Heaven. Perhaps it is the rhetorical moment which leads to exaggeration; in any case, it is an essential arrow in Satan's rhetorical quiver to get the Angels to support another attack on God. Third, he speaks of God's authority in Heaven as "by old repute,/ Consent or custom" (639-40). Earlier he has attributed God's victory as solely through strength; Beelzebub tried to argue that God's authority could rest on other factors, too. Here, by attributing God's power to a sort of agreement or social compact (and we know that, for Milton, social compacts can be revised or reversed), he makes it seem like things could change at any time. Satan has "softened up" his hearers by honeyed and fraudulent words.
(3) Satan has the temerity to argue that they all were actually in a better situation now that they were defeated. Or, slightly differently, the Rebel Angels are really not in a bad situation. They can't die. They now know not to provoke God to his face, so to speak. There is reason for optimism (648-49):
"[He] who overcomes
By force, hath overcome but half his foe."
The Rebel Angels have, to use 21st century-speak, "learned" from their defeat. They are better for it, stronger for their loss, more able now to focus their efforts fruitfully for the future. One can almost "hear" the Rebel Angels begin to relax. Satan is a master hermeneutician, interpreting the most dire situation in ways that will inspire them to take up the fight again.
(4) He gives them new information that inspires their hearts. Satan has heard a "fame" or rumor (651) while he was in Heaven, to the effect that God ere long (652-54):
"Intended to create, and therein plant
A generation, whom his choice regard
Should favor equal to the Sons of Heaven."
We can hear a ripple of amazement and temporary confusion fill the ranks of the Fallen Angels. What does this mean? How does this alter what we can do? The need for an interpreter is even more urgent now. Thus, Satan has gone from winning their confidence to deceiving their minds to giving them reason to believe that things can be better. There is little left to do, but....
(5) Take counsel on how to respond to this new situation.
"But these thoughts
Full counsel must mature..," 659-60.
The only option that is off the table is "Submission" (661). That isn't the way to go. Some kind of second rebellion is necessary. The issue to be resolved is whether "open" or "understood" (tacit) war must be pursued. Unlike the bumper stickers of our day, Satan is arguing that war is the answer. But, of what kind?
Before answering the question of what kind of war is needed, Milton has lots of other things to do. Indeed, the nature of his genius is to bring the most exquisite pressure to bear on the reader by the strength of language and clarity of thought. But, before resolving burning issues, he often then retreats to other relevant topics. This not only gives his narrative an almost leisurely pace, but it let's the tension rise and keep rising, until we actually reach the conclave in Hell. But first, the Rebel Angels must build Hell, and to that we now turn.