Satan's Deceptions in Book IV (I)
Bill Long 11/15/09
Milton has the unusual literary capacity of being both dense and fluent; his language requires slow reading in order to capture every morsel of his words, but his thought and argument is crystal clear and his pictures are vivid once you take the time to read and "feel" along with him. Book IV is especially rich in literary/rhetorical devices, clarity of presentation, vivid depiction of Satan's personality and even a word or two of humor. Satan, as others have pointed out, is one who, in the Apostle Paul's words, "transforms himself" (II Cor. 11:14) in Book IV of PL. First, he takes on the guise of a cherub, which is his means of breaking through the angelic protective barrier around earth in order to get access to humans. We are told in Book III that Satan was unperceived in this costume because "neither Man nor Angel can discern/ Hypocrisy, the only evil that walks/ Invisible, except to God alone," (III.682-84). Then, he becomes like the wolf or thief (IV.183, 188) as he breaks into the Garden of Eden through the alternative method of leaping over the wall. Then, he perches on the Tree of Life as a cormorant (literally a "crow of the sea"; IV.196) as he views the sylvan scene before him. Finally, he will become transformed into the despised toad when he whispers his deceptive words into Eve's ear. So great was his fall from the first heavenly bliss! Now he adds to that fall by declining yet further. Satan's experience in Book IV of PL confirms the truth of the trenchant psychological observation of IV.76-77, "And in the lowest deep a lower deep/ Still threat'ning to devour me opens wide.." Satan has not only looked into the yawning maws of deepest Hell; he has gone deeper still.
A Bit of Humor?
Before delving into Satan's portrait in IV.172-201, I add a word about possible humor in IV.168-171. Milton has just described the overpoweringly alluring air of Paradise. It is not only pure; it is odoriferous. Satan takes a whiff (166), and Milton says:
"though with them (the odors) better pleased
Than Asmodeus with the fishy fume,
That drove him, though enamor'd, from the Spouse
Of Tobit's Son, and with a vengeance sent
From Media post to Egypt, there fast bound."
The "fishy fume" to which Milton refers in l.168 is recounted in the Apocryphal Book of Tobit. Tobit's son Tobias marriad Sara, who had already been married seven times; each time her husband was slain on the marriage bed by the jealous demon Asmodeus. This disappointed Sara, not to mention the men who were killed! Well, the angel Raphael instructed Tobias on how he might avoid the wrath of Asmodeus--burn the heart and liver of a fish in his room, and the odor would drive the demon away. He did so, and Asmodeus was driven from Media, where they were espoused, to Egypt. Thus, the smell of which Tobit speaks is a sort of stench that drove away rather than allured. When Milton says that Satan was probably more pleased with the hyperbaric odor of Paradise than was Asmodeus "with the fishy fume," we smile.
But we wonder if the humor is an intentional act at humor or is Milton's attempt to "show off" his learning in a densely packed four lines. Though some notes to Book IV emphasize the popularity of Tobit in the 17th century, it would have been a stretch for many of his readers then (and for nearly all readers today) to have immediately recalled the story of Tobit. In any case, we are given a phrase ("fishy fume") which can profitably be brought into our vocabulary.
Moving to the Text
Satan, the great deceiver, landed near Paradise on the peak of Mount Niphates in Syria (III.742). He continued to walk East towards Paradise. We have "so on he fares" (131) and "Now to the ascent...he journeyed on" (171-72). But Milton stresses the slow pace of his movement. Earlier we saw him "not rejoicing in his speed" (13); now we have him moving along the base of the high hill "pensive and slow" (173). Indeed, as if to emphasize Satan's sluggish steps, Milton gives us an alliteration:
"Now to the ascent of that steep, savage Hill
Satan had journeyed on, pensive and slow."
The "s" sound s-l-o-w-s things down. Satan is not moving slowly because of the steepness of the Hill; indeed, he doesn't try to climb it. Rather, he is thinking, perhaps wondering what method to use to work his deception. Read Milton aloud; you, too, will want to slow down to hear every word.
Earlier in this book we have the arresting description of the Garden of Eden, perched high on an inaccessible slope of Mt. Paradise; now we have Satan, as it were, surveying the scene as he deliberates on what to do. In fact, Satan does a good deal of surveying things before he "lights on his feet" in the Garden (183).
Milton surely knows how to use the rhythm and sound of words to maximize his message. For example, just a few lines earlier in Book IV, where Satan described the futility of rebelling against God and his subsequent despair, he closes the first part of his thought with the beveled words: "Such joy ambition finds" (92). It is a full stop, a sort of Ciceronian period that grandly brings to a close a torrent of earlier desperate words.
We haven't made much "progress" in expositing Milton here, but you see the approach and the promise, both of Milton's writing and our reading. Take off your shoes; you have entered into the Holy of Holies of careful use of English.