John Milton's Chaos: "Chance governs all . . ."
A discussion has broken out on the Milton List concerning just how 'chaotic' Milton's "chaos" was. Gustave Doré gives it more stability of form than I would have depicted, given Milton's own description in Book 2 of Paradise Lost:
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a darkI lack time this morning to get into heavy analysis of this passage, which is a very complex mix of Graeco-Roman and Biblical concepts and imagery. But I do want to focus attention on the issue of stability in this chaos. I suspect that the instability goes all the way down.
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold [ 895 ]
Eternal Anarchie, amidst the noise
Of endless Warrs, and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistrie, and to Battel bring
Thir embryon Atoms; they around the flag [ 900 ]
Of each his faction, in thir several Clanns,
Light-arm'd or heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow,
Swarm populous, unnumber'd as the Sands
Of Barca or Cyrene's torrid soil,
Levied to side with warring Winds, and poise [ 905 ]
Thir lighter wings. To whom these most adhere,
Hee rules a moment; Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter
Chance governs all . . . . this wilde Abyss, [ 910 ]
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain [ 915 ]
His dark materials to create more Worlds (PL 2.891-916)
[Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, January 2009]
Instability doesn't seem to stop at qualities and atoms, for qualities such as "hot, cold, moist, and dry" or "heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow" cannot exist without being the properties of matter, such as the four traditional elements of water, earth, air, and fire alluded to as "Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire" or the fundamental particles called "atoms."
In stating that there is "neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, / But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt / Confus'dly," Milton would seem to mean that the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire do not exist except in their "causes" alone, the qualities of "hot, cold, moist, and dry," which cannot exist in isolation as properties alone. Similarly, he mentions the "embryon atoms," which suggests a lack of proper, finished form even though the ancient concept of the atoms was that they had no inner complexity, but were hard, indestructible units of matter with specific properties "heavy, sharp, smooth, swift or slow."
Moreover, Milton describes chaos as being "Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth, / And time and place are lost," which seems to make the abyss a deeply formless 'state' of affairs in which even atoms or elements could not fully exist.
And "Chance governs all . . ."