Satan's Deceptions in Book IV (II)
Bill Long 11/15/09
Satan on the Move
Satan slowly moves along the base of Mount Paradise, atop of which is the walled Garden of Eden, where Adam is in charge of his demesne, but is both lord and underlord, both namer of all things but tiller of the soil. Satan has dedicated himself to the life of Evil ("Evil be thou my Good"--110); all hope he has of a second chance in heaven has been smashed, both because he knows he wouldn't be able to submit and because God has now directed his attention to Mankind, for whom he made this world. Thus, evil is in his breast as he circles the mountain.
He has no means of access to the mountain or Eden at the top because of the dense thicket of undergrowth covering the steep slope. Words tumble out of Milton's mouth, or drip from his pen, describing the tangles that would daunt the most dauntless climber. But Satan wants in. He doesn't want to enter by the door but, like the thief in Jesus' stories of false shepherds (John 10), he will vault over the wall into the Garden. That wall was above the highest tips of the rows of cedars, pines, fir and "branching palms" (139) that stood in ranks up the hill, and the lofty situation provided Adam (the "general Sire"--145) a "prospect large" of the surrounding region.
Satan, as mentioned, scorned to enter the Garden by the door, and so, in one motion,
"At one slight bound high o'erleaped all bound" (181)
and landed completely ("sheer within") in the Garden. But before we move to two epic similes (the wolf and the thief), we should pause on the bolded line. Milton skillfully plays on dual meanings of the word "bound." The first use of bound is a leap, a jump. It was easy for Satan to jump the hundreds of feet above the surrounding plain to land inside Eden. But by so doing he not only "o'erleaped" the wall of Eden, but he o'erleaped all "bound"--or boundary, limitation, limit. This act in Book IV captures in one line Satan's basic fault--he can't keep his bounds, but feels bound to bound out of them, and vault himself into a position even above God. Satan looks at limits as evil; and so his bounding over the wall here is totally in character with his earlier action. It also shows that he hasn't learned much of anything; he still keeps exceeding his bounds, and will continue to be knocked around by God, despite the fact that he hopes to rule over "more than half" of the universe (112).
I often wonder why people talk (mostly in America) about living beyond bounds, beyond limits. We tell young people that "the sky is the limit" or "imagine the impossible" or "reach for the stars." But these are simply rhetorical turns of phrases made by people who themselves live so bound to their own limitations that they are either ashamed or afraid to admit it. The sky is not the limit; the limit is considerably closer than the sky. If you think that reaching for the stars will help you reach the stars you are mistaken. There may still be the "audacity of hope," but let's drop the unhelpful rhetoric about exceeding all limits or bounds. That is Satan's way of thinking, at least to John Milton.
Milton's Two Similes (IV.183-191)
True to the epic tradition, Milton uses two similes in these lines to capture Satan's brazen and daring entry into the Garden. The first simile is of the wolf, who leaps over a fence to get into the Fold of sheep. They "leap o'er the fence with ease" and eat the sheep. I love the little phrase Milton uses to describe the pen which the shepherd makes for the sheep--"In hurdl'd Cotes amid the field secure"--in line 186. Each of the words (hurdl'd and Cotes) invites consideration. A "Cote" was, at first, a cottage but became, in the 14th century, an enclosure for sheep or smaller animals. A later evolution of meaning of this word was the "cot," which at first was simply an abbreviated way to say "cottage," but then in the 19th century took on the meaning of a cradle and, then, a small bed which, unlike a cradle, didn't rock. If something is "hurdl'd," it is "constructed of or with hurdles; wattled." A "hurdle" is "a portable rectangular frame, orig. having horizonal bars interwoven or wattled with withes of hazel, willow, etc." We see how way leads to way, for now we need to know what a "withe" is. It is, according to the OED, "a band, tie or shackle consisting of a tough, flexible twig or branch or several twisted together." Thus, all Milton is describing in these words is a fenced-in pen, but the words "In hurdl'd Cotes" is much more elegant. In fact, the OED cites this passage from PL under both its entries--for hurdled and Cote. Milton, literally, teaches us English.
Both similes of wolf and thief draw upon a rich biblical discussion in John 10, where Jesus talks about others who want to break into his pasture or fold in order to steal, damage or otherwise hurt the sheep. The thief here is one who wants to "unhoard" the cash of a rich Burgher. Milton's language is so vivid; we can see the stout and substantial door, with its crossbars and secure bolts, providing (ultimately an illusory) security for the rich man. The thief climbs in other ways--either through the window or the roof. Buying the most expensive security system sometimes can't stanch the loss of costly items.
Milton brings these similes to a conclusion in lines 192-93 with the verb "climb" acting as an inclusio for the passage. Or, to put it differently, we have here an example of chiasmus, a rhetorical device where the word in question is placed in the "X" position (first and last words). So "clomb the first grand Thief" into the fold of God long ago; now, however, we have other "lewd Hirelings" who daily "climb." Is this an anti-Catholic or anti-high-Epsicopalian statement? Milton used this kind of language in his 1638 poem Lycidas (lines 115ff.) and the same content might be assumed here.
We aren't yet to the wonderful image of Satan as Cormorant sitting atop the Tree of Life, surveying the scene yet further, or Milton's remark that the Tree of Life, when used properly, could give one eternal life (an inference from Gen. 3:22). Yet we have enough here for one more "meal" from Milton. He feeds us till we want no more. His words are the most delicious thing you can imagine. Indeed, I think you have to memorize him in order to do him justice, and then begin carefully and boldly to bring some of his phrases into our conversation. He deserves no less from us 401 years after his birth.