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From Paradise Lost, Book Two
He ceased; and Satan stayed not to reply,
But glad that now his sea should find a shore,
With fresh alacrity and force renewed
Springs upward like a pyramid of fire
Into the wild expanse, and through the shock
Of fighting elements, on all sides round
Environed wins his way; harder beset
And more endangered, than when Argo pass’d
Through Bosporus, betwixt the jostling Rocks:
Or when Ulysses on the larbord shunned
Charybdis, and by the other whirlpool steered.
So he with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on, with difficulty and labour he;
But he once past, soon after when man fell,
Strange alteration! Sin and Death amain
Following his track, such was the will of heaven,
Paved after him a broad and beaten way
Over the dark abyss, whose boiling gulf
Tamely endured a bridge of wondrous length
From Hell continued reaching the utmost orb
Of this frail world; by which the spirits perverse
With easy intercourse pass to and fro
To tempt or punish mortals, except whom
God and good angels guard by special grace.
But now at last the sacred influence
Of light appears, and from the walls of heaven
Shoots far into the bosom of dim night
A glimmering dawn; here nature first begins
Her farthest verge, and Chaos to retire
As from her outmost works a broken foe
With tumult less and with less hostile din,
That Satan with less toil, and now with ease
Wafts on the calmer wave by dubious light
And like a weather-beaten vessel holds
Gladly the port, though shrouds and tackle torn;
Or in the emptier waste, resembling air,
Weighs his spread wings, at leisure to behold
Far off the empyreal heaven, extended wide
In circuit, undetermined square or round,
With opal towers and battlements adorned
Of living sapphire, once his native seat;
And fast by hanging in a golden chain
This pendent world, in bigness as a star
Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
Thither full fraught with mischievous revenge,
Accurst, and in a cursèd hour he hies.
Every so often I put on my sports bra, flex a few surprised muscles and head to the literary gym of some major classic. There’s no pressure any more: I can read as slowly as I like, and replace the bookmark guiltlessly if I fancy a snooze. Though it may be a return visit, I’m guaranteed to find all sorts of new treasure.
This week I’ve been revisiting Paradise Lost. It started with a comment on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Too often parochial, patronising and predictable, the programme recovered its form in the New Horizons edition on New Year’s Day. The context was the Ultima Thule flyby. A space-travel pioneer, being interviewed, mentioned seeing the world for the first time, “like Milton’s Satan”. My antennae double-sparked. Everyone loves Milton’s Satan, and I’m no exception. I laced up my trainers, and prepared for some Miltonic weightlifting.
The passage chosen here comes at the close of the poem’s second book. Satan, a consummate politician, has already established himself. He’s visited Pandaemonium (rich parallels with Milton’s political landscape, and ours) and won the parliamentary vote allowing him to bring mayhem to God’s favoured new creation, the human race. Having negotiated with the demons and schmoozed his magnificently horrible relatives, his daughter Sin and their incestuous offspring Death, Satan passes through the gates of Hell. He visits Chaos, and, naturally, gets Chaos’s approval for his New Horizons mission, too: “Havoc and spoil and ruin are my gain.” And so the journey and our extract begin.
This time round, I wanted to know about Milton’s cosmology. I made a a start with this interesting essay, The Structure of Milton’s Universe, which sometimes offers clarification and is frank when it can’t. There are pictures, too, as there are in Philip Pullman’s lovingly rebellious writer’s commentary.
What I’ve realised more keenly than before is the extensive depth of Milton’s classical infrastructure. It goes well beyond the mining of Greek myth for analogy and metaphor. Milton’s very cosmos is at least sometimes Greek. For example, his image of the world hanging from a golden chain can be found in Homer’s Iliad. In fact, according to this cosmological inheritance, the world seen by Satan is not Earth, as the Today astronaut thought: it’s the universe.
It’s difficult for us to envisage the universe as a globe, however vast. The image is too static, too tidy. Rather more accessible is Milton’s concept of primordial Chaos, a messily physical region that might correspond with our idea of the universe shortly after the Big Bang. (Milton’s God does not create the world ex nihilo.)
Milton was interested in the science of his time. “What if the sun / Be Centre to the world,” the narrator famously asks in Book Eight. Let God worry about all that, is the thrust of the response. Scientific reasoning is ultimately marginal to the big story.
Milton’s cosmos is a visionary unfolding and enfolding of the biblical map with others from his vast mental bookstore. Paradise Lost itself is a densely intertextual amalgam of fictional worlds, made newly brilliant by the imagination behind the poet’s now sightless eyes, embodied in blank verse at its most vigorously muscled – “English Heroic Verse … without Rime … the invention of a barbarous age,” as the author robustly proclaimed. That verse flows, twists, ripples and thunders like a team of miraculously tireless and synchronised horses. It’s the perfect body-mind work-out.
• Note: The full online text of Paradise Lost provides a substantial introduction and notes. The extract above is from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of John Milton, The Major Works. Milton first published Paradise Lost in 1667; the revised version most often reproduced today came out in 1674.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Poem of the week: From Paradise Lost by John Milton | Books