The Strength of the Rebel Angels II
Bill Long 12/17/09
Milton makes several important literary moves in these 55 lines, but few are more important than: (1) his description of the strength and impressiveness of the Rebel Angel army; and (2) the mixed feelings of Satan, their leader, when he surveys the troops and prepares to address them. The picture of Satan is so delicately drawn that one understands why Milton has often been attacked as being "too sympathetic" to Satan. Milton no doubt deeply understood both the grief and pride which the Prince of Demons felt. There is much else in these lines, but these two ideas will take all my time.
The Strength of the Rebel Army
Milton uses a Latinism (i.e., English words but with a Latin construction) and unusual English phrases to turn our attention to the army. Here are the lines:
"for never since created man,
Met such embodied force, as nam'd with these
Could merit more than that small infantry
Warr'd on by cranes," (573-76).
There is also some humor here, but let's begin with the unusual phrases. The lines mean, as Beeching and Briggs tell us in their commentary on Book I, "No army that ever met or could have been got together since man was created, if it was compared with this, would deserve more consideration than that of the Pygmies."
Concerning the Pygmies, who are not expressly named here, Milton has a short joke which I will briefly explain. He mentions a "small infantry/ Warr'd on by cranes" (575-76), a reference taken directly from Book III of The Iliad (lines 1-5). There the noise of the advancing Trojans is likened to that of the cranes when they annually attack the hapless Pygmies. All the armies that ever fought are like Pygmies to Hell's army. How large are the Pygmies? The Greeks invented the name (the Greek word is actually pygmy); the word means a "cubit" or the distance from the elbow to the knuckle. Pygmies, then are "cubit-height" people.
Just as the tallest Norwegian pine was as but a wand in comparison with Satan's walking stick (294), so we will see that the strongest human fighting forces, even those supported "with auxiliar (i.e, "aid-giving") Gods" (579), were nothing compared to this force. Reflection on this disparity gives Milton a chance to show off his knowledge as in 10 packed lines he lists as many noble fighting forces from ancient mythology to medieval romance that had ever been assembled. No match are they to the Hellish forces.
Focus On Satan--Again
Whatever was lacking in Satan's glory as he stood before his troops is more than made up by Milton in his scintillating words about the Prince of Darkness. We see him orgulous when the strength of the troops is described (567-573). But now, after Milton shows off his knowledge of medieval romance, we are back to Satan, who "Stood like a tow'r" (591) before them. In the word "tow'r" I see both height and erectness. But then Milton tells us that his form had not lost "all" its original brightness, and Satan didn't appear like the "Arch-Angel ruin'd." Perhaps the stirring scene before him refreshed his visage and renewed his determination. In any case, Milton gives us two stunningly beautiful similes and then a laser-sharp insight into the mental torment of Satan as he prepares to speak to the troops. Let's treat the torment first and finish, in the next essay, with the similes.
Satan's heart both distends with pride and is broken with pain as he examines his troops. The pride is easy to understand--all the troops remain loyal and as one man before him. Why wouldn't there have been mutiny? After all, Satan had miscalculated pretty badly. But there they stand, disciplined, ready to listen to their leader and retaliate as he commands.
Yet the more significant move here is Milton's description of Satan's pain. In short, Satan feels excruciating agony because he realizes that he has led all of his fellow Reble Angels to this miserable condition. In Milton's inimitable words (604-11):
"cruel his (i.e., Satan's) eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn'd
For ever now to have their lot in pain,
of Spirits for his fault amerc'd
Of Heav'n, and from eternal splendors flung
For his revolt, yet faithful how they stood.."
They suffered for his sin. It is almost a picture perfect reversal of the Christian doctrine of redemption. Whereas in that view it was the suffering of one man who made many righteous, here it is the bad decision of one Angel who made the many damned. Satan is moved by the fact that the others not only are standing there, mute and obedient, but that they "half inclose him round," pressing upon him to hear his every word. Just as the flames of Hell were described as a kind of ever-surrounding cauldron, so now the Rebel Angels form an inner circle around Satan, to listen to him. And, what does he do in this situation? He weeps. Yes, he weeps.
"Thrice he assay'd (to speak), and thrice in spite of scorn (the attitude he should have displayed)/ Tears, such as Angels weep, burst forth..." (619-20).
We have the "epic thrice" here. Three times the Trojan Horse got stuck before the walls of Troy. More to the point, Ovid (Metamorphoses XI.419) talks about Ceyx, who thrice tried to speak but was thrice unable to because of her tears/sighs. It is as if we can see Satan struggling to hold back the tears, perhaps catching his breath once or twice, but then he was unable to contain himself, and the great torrents of grief poured forth. Satan, in short, has a conscience. He may be proud, and his pride may have been the culprit in beginning the great war against God, but he is also a deep feeler, one who profoundly feels the trust that others have placed in him. It both gratifies him and tears him up. Such is the Devil we have before us...
The next essay will treat the two similes of this passage and then turn to Satan's actual speech (622-62).