Sunday, June 04, 2006

"A Universe of death..."

"A Universe of death"

Continuing my theme of excursions through Hell, where some of my plagiarizing students will soon be residing, let us join a band of fallen angels as they explore a universe of death:

Another part in Squadrons and gross Bands,
On bold adventure to discover wide
That dismal world, if any Clime perhaps
Might yield them easier habitation, bend
Four ways thir flying March, along the Banks
Of four infernal Rivers that disgorge
Into the burning Lake thir baleful streams;
Abhorred Styx the flood of deadly hate,
Sad Acheron of sorrow, black and deep;
Cocytus, nam'd of lamentation loud
Heard on the ruful stream; fierce Phlegeton
Whose waves of torrent fire inflame with rage.
Farr off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion roules
Her watrie Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets,
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.
Beyond this flood a frozen Continent
Lies dark and wilde, beat with perpetual storms
Of Whirlwind and dire Hail, which on firm land
Thaws not, but gathers heap, and ruin seems
Of ancient pile; all else deep snow and ice,
A gulf profound as that Serbonian Bog
Betwixt Damiata and Mount Casius old,
Where Armies whole have sunk: the parching Air
Burns frore, and cold performs th' effect of Fire.
Thither by harpy-footed Furies hail'd,
At certain revolutions all the damn'd
Are brought: and feel by turns the bitter change
Of fierce extreams, extreams by change more fierce,
From Beds of raging Fire to starve in Ice
Thir soft Ethereal warmth, and there to pine
Immovable, infixt, and frozen round,
Periods of time, thence hurried back to fire.
They ferry over this Lethean Sound
Both to and fro, thir sorrow to augment,
And wish and struggle, as they pass, to reach
The tempting stream, with one small drop to loose
In sweet forgetfulness all pain and woe,
All in one moment, and so neer the brink;
But fate withstands, and to oppose th' attempt
Medusa with Gorgonian terror guards
The Ford, and of it self the water flies
All taste of living wight, as once it fled
The lip of Tantalus. Thus roving on
In confus'd march forlorn, th' adventrous Bands
With shuddring horror pale, and eyes agast
View'd first thir lamentable lot, and found
No rest: through many a dark and drearie Vaile
They pass'd, and many a Region dolorous,
O'er many a Frozen, many a fierie Alpe,
Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,
A Universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Then Fables yet have feign'd, or fear conceiv'd,
Gorgons and Hydra's, and Chimera's dire.

(Dartmouth College, Milton Reading Room, PL
2
.570-628)

Lines 622-624 call this place a universe of death where all life dies, but we see many apparently living things here and are informed that nature breeds things perverse. All life dies here, and death lives, but what do these statements mean, especially "death lives"? The oxymoronic combination recalls the similarly hellish description "darkness visible" (PL 1.63).

Death appears in Milton's Hell as an amorphous but powerful and even deadly figure encountered by Satan as he approaches Hell's gates to attempt his way out:

... The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on. (PL 2.666-673)

The formlessness of personified Death (first described, incidentally, starting in line 666) provides a clue, for what nature breeds in Hell is "Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things, / Abominable" (PL 2.625-626). The formlessness of Death stands reflected in the perverse forms glimpsed by the band of rebel angels as they fly through Hell. The term "Abominable" recalls the abominations of Leviticus, creatures that do not properly fit into God's classificatory schema and by their improper form incur the designation "unclean," not proper for eating. The formlessness also finds analogue in the fallen angels' deterioration, the loss of their proper form.

Little wonder, then, that Hell's proper place lies deep within the formless realm of chaos.

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3 Comments:

At 1:03 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Milton's "darkness visible": what a phrase...an inversion of invisible light...a light so intense (as that of the physical Sun/God perceived through shaded glass at Fiesole)it cannot be looked at...brightness beyond the eyes...as the light of God is beyond the seraphim who must shade their eyes with wings. Man lives to die. Life dies. Is that as paradoxical as its inversion "death lives"? Strange, religion has smoothed one paradox out. Milton has to be creating an anti-resurrection scenario in Hell which is embodied in the phrase "death lives". And death enters at line 666. Very nice point. Never noticed this! Is it part of numerical composition in Paradise Lost? There are other examples where single line numbers carry silent meanings. A discovery!

 
At 3:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, the 666 in Book 2 is something that I noticed on my own -- though other scholars may have noticed it as well. Others have certainly noted that line 666 of Book 5 introduces the first evil:

Deep malice thence conceiving...

It's a rather clever point, but seems to have arisen when Milton decided to re-edit Paradise Lost as a 12-volume rather than a 10-volume work, for in the 10-volume, 1667 edition, the line is 664 of Book 5.

I'm not sure that "life dies" is paradoxical. Death occurs at an instant, so it's not a state, unlike living, which is. But they are nice inversions of one another.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 4:39 AM, Blogger eshuneutics said...

Thank you. The number 100 (as completion) is also significant in PL. Yes, you are right about the relative importance of time in the two phrases.

 

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