Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Unwary Reader in Paradise Lost

One of the most memorable scenes in Paradise Lost comes in Book 2.890-919, which describes Satan's first glimpse of chaos after he has persuaded his daughter and former paramour Sin to use her key to open Hell's gates so that he can plunge into the abyss and force his way through the warring elements to blaze a path to God's new creation and open it for conquest:

Before thir eyes in sudden view appear [ 890 ]
The secrets of the hoarie deep, a dark
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. Into 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,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage:

Impressive in their description of the chaos that confronts a Satan intent on his perilous endeavor, the verses lead us to the very brink, where we leap with the Adversary deep into the wild abyss . . .

. . . only to discover that we're out there alone.

This is part of Milton's brilliance. He captivates us with language, induces us to identify with Satan, then leaves us dangling. Milton's method in his 'great argument' is "Not so much a Teaching as an Intangling," to borrow Stanley Fish's memorable phrase. Or as I would suggest: "teaching by entangling."

Milton's aim? To evoke in the reader the experience of the fall. To teach us fallenness.

We might not like the lesson. We might even feel manipulated. But we learn from the experience.


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