Rallying the Troops III
Bill Long 12/9/09
And Some More Similes; PL I.315-338
To the dazed, supine Rebel Angels, Satan speaks (315-330). Upon completing his speech, the Angels leap to attention, abashed at the barbs Satan delivers. Just as their prostrate state was described in similes, so their alacrity in response to Satan's upbraiding is presented by way of similes in this section. Similes, then, make the middle section of Book I sing. These similes also support my thesis, articulated earlier, that they function as verbal pictures allowing escape from the narrative by bringing readers imaginatively into other worlds--of nature, history, Bible or science. In this essay I will examine Satan's speech in 315-330 and then look at the similes that follow.
Finally, Satan Speaks (315-330)
One of the arguments supporting Milton's enormous creativity and authorial power is that by this relatively early point in Book I we feel we already know Satan pretty well. At first we saw him as an outspoken and defiant Angel, vowing to oppose God at every turn. I argued that he was self-deceived on a number of grounds. We saw his bluster and bragging. But we have seen more than his gasconade or braggadocio. In response to Beelzebub's caution, we saw Satan as a clever rhetorician, carefully trying to set out grounds of agreement with his lieutenant so that he could press his case forward. In the lines in this section we see another aspect of Satan's personality: his calculated use of sarcasm and criticism to rally the troops.
He addresses the fallen Angels as if he is addressing a meeting of the House of Commons. "Princes, Potenates, Warriors...," lend me your ears. "Mr. President, members of the Trustees, esteemed Colleagues..." He cleverly calls his wilted compatriots "the flow'r of Heav'n." Recall earlier he first addressed Beelzebub with "If thou beest hee..." (84). No such uncertainty stalks him now. He has a case to sell; he will address them as if not fallen.
But he begins by chiding his stunned colleagues. He makes one statement and then poses two rhetorical questions. The chide is in 317-18:
"If such astonishment as this can seize
This is a highly abbreviated statement. He means to say, 'If such listlessness seizes you, it's clear you don't have the energy to mount an attack on Heaven.' But it is as if his voice trails off with his own (mock) lethargy, to show them what they appear to be to an outside observer. Tell warriors they are wimps; this will get them going.
Then he shames the Rebel Angels with sarcastic irony. The sense of the next two questions is: (1) 'Or, maybe you are sprawled out here on the brimstone because you are just taking a break after a tough battle. After you had a tough day in Heaven, you stretched out and took a break. Is that what you are doing here?' (318-321) (2) 'Or, maybe you are in your "abject posture" (322) because you are assuming the correct biblical position for worship and adoration. Are you?' (322-323). These two questions remind me of the biblical account of the encounter between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). That passage presented a contest between Yahweh and Baal. Which deity would respond to his prophet's entreaties? Baal didn't respond to his prophets. So, Elijah chided:
"Pray louder! He is a god! Maybe he is day-dreaming or relieving himself, or perhaps he's gone off on a trip! Or maybe he's sleeping, and you've got to wake him up!" (I Kings 18:27)
But there is more at stake than simply some sarcasm. Satan's final lines of the speech give a warning. It is as if he sees into the divine mind, and that mind is itself watching the infernal drama unfold and will let it continue to unfurl until he wants to put a stop to it. Then, he will send his "swift pursuers" and "tread us down" while we are unprepared. Or, even worse, he will send "linked thunderbolts" to "transfix" us to the bottom of the gulf (329). These lines (327-330) are reminiscent of Virgil's description of Ajax's death in Book I of the Aeneid, especially the words "transfixo pectore" (with pierced breast).
The Crowd Responds (331-345)
Shamed, the Rebel Angels leap to attention. The simile follows:
"as when Men wont to watch
On duty, sleeping found by whom they dread,
Rouse and bestir themselves ere well awake," 332-34.
This is not a "heavy" simile at all; in fact it is one of the most light-hearted in PL. We can see guys sleeping on the job and getting discovered. Driven by a mingled sense of shame, fear and self-loathing, they try unsuccessfully to conceal the fact that they are, in fact, out of it. We know of people who have done this; we have done it; we chuckle because it reminds us of our kids who have done it. Ah, back to Hell!
They knew they were in the wrong; and "to their general's voice they soon obey'd/ Innumerable" (337-38). This line is interesting for a few reasons. First, it is a Latinate construction. The flow of the thought is "they soon obeyed to their general's voice.." We don't speak that way in English, but Latin (as well as Greek) uses the dative case ("to") with verbs of obedience. Thus, Milton has "Latinized" English here. Second, we expect that he would say that the Rebel Angels lept to attention immediately, or with speed or alacrity or as quickly as the wind whisks the sand from the beach. But we have the word "innumerable." Just as we didn't expect the words "were but a wand" (294) to express the contrast between the tall Norwegian pine and Satan's staff, so we don't expect this indeterminate number descriptor. But its place on the next line, with a full stop after it makes the reader pause and reflect on the independent value of that one long word. Innumerable are the defeated Angels. It must have been one fierce fight in Heaven. And, Satan is lord over quite a number.
The word innumerable then takes us down a different path than the preceding lines. Instead of the focus on the terrible conditions in Hell, our shift is on the number of those in Hell. We are just about to meet some of these choice characters...