Rallying the Troops 1.283-330 (I)
Bill Long 12/8/09
Milton's Beautiful Similies; Satan's Rousing Speech
The similes, which Milton had introduced somewhat unskillfully in line 197, continue here, but this time they are brought in with such care, diversity, imagination and vividness that the reader's breath is nearly taken away. They are taken from the realms of science, the Bible and nature; they tumble over each other with such rapidity in 30 lines that we almost lose sight of the fact that it is the condition of the Fallen Angels on the fiery plain that is being described. But once the description is done, Satan then addresses his compatriots (315-30) with ironic humor, humor that leads to their shame and rising for battle. This essay and the next will, after looking at some of Milton's words and descriptive power, focus on the similes. My thesis is that the similes function to stir the imagination of the reader, so that s/he temporarily "leaves" the text to venture into other worlds, then returns with renewed energy and commitment to the picture being drawn.
A Few of Milton's Words
As has been noted by many, Milton is an "originalist" when it comes to words--i.e., he often goes right to the Latin (usually) root of the word for its usage, often overlooking more "modern" definitions that have appeared in the meantime. For example, his use of "conduct" in line 130 reaches back to the Latin conducere, which means "to lead" or "to guide." Milton uses the word "pernicious" in line 282 in like fashion. It is the line that closes the previous section; Beelzebub is commenting upon the lethargy of the other Rebel Angels. They are "astounded and amaz'd." But this is "No wonder," because they are "fall'n such a pernicious highth." We usually associate the word with "villainous" or "wicked," but its original meaning in Latin is "death" (nec) and "complete" or "full." So, a pernicious highth is one that is a deathly, life-threatening, severely harmful or fatal.
His use of "Ethereal" in the unusual phrase "Ethereal temper" (285) to describe Satan's shield, emphasizes the fact that this weapon was tempered in heaven. Reference to Satan's shield leads us to consider the description of Satan--and our first simile.
The Massy Shield
Shields are important in epic literature. Heroes fight battles and are protected in their fights by these massy, convex orbs. It takes Homer more than 100 lines of Book XVIII of the Iliad to describe the shield of Achilles. And Apollonius of Rhodes, the author of that Hellenistic-era imitation epic, the Argonautica, spent several lines describing Jason's shield. Thus, Milton is on good ground for taking the time to describe this Infernal warrior's shield. We get a picture of Satan wading towards the shore (wasn't he already there before?) with the "broad circumference" of the shield hanging on his shoulders. Many commentators then take the simile that begins in line 287 ("like the moon, whose orb..") as a simile of size; i.e., the shield was seemingly as large as the moon seen through the "optic glass" (288), but I think as good a case can be made for the similarity being between the shape of the shield on his shoulder and the shape of a crescent moon. No matter, because where Milton really wants to take us is to the science of his day--to Galileo, the "Tuscan artist" who descried "Rivers or mountains" (on the moon) "in her spotty globe" (291). The words "spotty globe" are so apt because they capture how the moon appears to us; the dark and lighter areas being mountains and valleys.
Milton is entranced by this "artist" (when was the last time you heard a "hardcore" scientist referred to as an "artist"? Isn't he correct?), who brought us into the very creative theater of God by bringing the moon closer to us. If Milton by his poetic artistry is creating worlds in pre-historic time, Galileo discovered them in human time. We are so delighted by Milton's appreciation of Galileo, whom he met in the summer or fall of 1638 when spending considerable time in Italy, that we too strain, with our mind's eye, to see the mottled surface of the moon and to experience the joy of discovery as these shadows come into focus with the aid of the "optic glass." And Milton isn't content just with describing these specifics; he also tells us that this heavenly orb was seen either at the top of Fesole by evening or in Valdarno, the valley of the Arno River. Knowledge compounds with knowledge to give us a simile that takes us to the moon through Italy. We escape for a moment, and are placed in a new and fascinating world, only to return, in line 292, to our next simile.
Let's continue with the description. Satan has to pick his way with "uneasy steps" on the "burning marle" (295-96) in order to get to a good place to deliver his speech to the prostrate Angels. We see him almost like an old man hobbling along a cobblestone street, cautiously planting his spear and shuffling his suffering feet over the uneven surface. Milton drops in the nice touch that this superheated surface was "not like those steps/ On Heaven's azure" (296-97). No doubt that is not just the Narrator's point of view; Satan also remembers those heavenly steps. How he must have longed for the pure Azure.
Now we are ready for the simile which not only compares "the tallest [Norwegian] pine" (292) with his spear, but does so by effectively using the rhetorical device known as praeter expectatum--"beyond" or "contrary" to all expectation." As one commentator says (M. MacMillan, Paradise Lost: Books I and II, note under II.292):
"Until the very end of the sentence we expect to be told that to equal Satan's spear we must think of a tall Norwegian pine, and, just as we are managing with difficulty to imagine such an immense spear, the words 'were but a wand' (294) are unexpectedly introduced to inform us that even this comparison is far below the mark."
We think, 'How large is the spear!' and then are told that the huge pine is as if it is a wand, a thin, flimsy, almost twig-like piece of wood. At the end of Book I the demons will suddenly become incredibly small; now we have the feeling of a great tree becoming amazingly minute. So large is the shuffling giant.
Thus, by the time we get to the transitional line of the section (299--"Nathless"), we have two blockbuster similes. One is taken from science; one is from nature. In both instances our imagination is removed from the immediate heat of Hell to the lure of discovery or of majestic pines on Northern slopes. Then, we are brought suddenly back to the reality before us. Milton has given us a joyful escape, and has let us play with the pictures he creates. Indeed, we can continue for several minutes playing with the picture--by putting down the book and learning about or imagining Galileo; by imagining the tree-cloaked forests of Norway--but every time we leave the picture, we are deposited in Hell. Thus, there ultimately is no way to get out of Hell, even if Milton has made Hell pleasant, or relatively so, for a while.
The next essay finishes the similes in this section.