Wednesday, January 06, 2010

John Milton: "Autumnal leaves . . . . fall'n" in Paradise Lost

Satan Awakens his Fallen Legions
(Image from History of Art)

I'm continuing to poke around in Paradise Lost for John Milton's references to the seasons. The reference below is to autumn but may obliquely recall the "fall of the leaf" that I've previously noted. In this passage, Satan stoically strides to the fiery shore of the flaming sea from which he has just arisen and calls out to his fallen legions, who lay strewn as thick as autumnal leaves upon that same sea:
Nathless he so endur'd, till on the Beach
Of that inflamed Sea, he stood and call'd [ 300 ]
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th' Etrurian shades
High overarch't imbowr; or scatterd sedge
Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm'd [ 305 ]
Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves orethrew
Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu'd
The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore thir floating Carkases [ 310 ]
And broken Chariot Wheels, so thick bestrown
Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,
Under amazement of thir hideous change.
He call'd so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates, [ 315 ]
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav'n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos'n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find [ 320 ]
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav'n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? who now beholds
Cherube and Seraph rowling in the Flood
With scatter'd Arms and Ensigns, till anon [ 325 ]
His swift pursuers from Heav'n Gates discern
Th' advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked Thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this Gulfe.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n. [ 330 ] (PL 1.299-330)

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
Note that Satan's legions are described as "Autumnal Leaves" (line 302) and as "fall'n" (line 330). This oblique allusion -- if it is an allusion -- is about as close as Milton comes to referring to autumn as "fall" (or "the fall of the leaf"). Certainly, the imagery of fallen leaves is present, a very postlapsarian vision of autumn, unlike the fruitful autumnal imagery of the prelapsarian garden -- though, fittingly, the fallen angels are already postlapsarian.

Roy Flannagan, in John Milton, A Short Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), has some interesting remarks on this passage, noting that Milton "is . . . well aware that dry, yellow leaves or fallen leaves signify death" (page 93). Similarly, William Zunder, in Paradise lost: John Milton (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), reminds us that "Fallen leaves were a recurring simile for the dead" in poetry (page 163). Death, of course, characterizes the postlapsarian world. Both scholars also make some other interesting remarks, but I leave the clicking to interested readers.

More another time.

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