Thursday, March 16, 2006

"fire is the Devil's only friend'

My nine-year-old daughter is reading Paradise Lost.

Actually, we're reading it together ... slowly, line by painful line, much as it was written, probably, though Milton claimed that it came to him from his heavenly muse, the Holy Spirit, whom Milton conceives as female and whose dictation or inspiration he hopes will make his verse equal to his theme:

If answerable style I can obtaine
Of my Celestial Patroness, who deignes
Her nightly visitation unimplor'd,
And dictates to me slumb'ring, or inspires
Easie my unpremeditated Verse (PL 9.20-24)

Precisely what Milton is claiming here seems deliberately ambiguous. He asks of his Celestial Patroness a style 'answerable' (corresponding) to the high theme that he has chosen for book nine: the fall. But why does he write "or"? Can't he distinguish between whether his muse is dictating the actual words or inspiring his verse in some less literal manner? Either way, he claims that the poem's lines come easy to him. No writer's block for this fellow.

But I was talking about my daughter. Because she's getting her education in a Korean school, I have to spend time each evening teaching her English. Most of what I have her reading is proper to her level, but I'll admit that Milton is wildly inappropriate. I recall her reaction in Book 1, lines 75-81:

O how unlike the place from whence they fell!
There the companions of his fall, o'rewhelm'd
With Floods and Whirlwinds of tempestuous fire,
He soon discerns, and weltring by his side
One next himself in power, and next in crime,
Long after known in Palestine, and nam'd
Beelzebub. (PL 1.75-81)

She stumbled at the name "Beelzebub."

"Beezelbub ... Beetlepup ... Peelthebulb..."

"Be-el-ze-bub," I pronounced.

"Be-el-ze-bub," she repeated, then asked, "Who's that?"

"That's the devil's closest companion," I explained.

"What's a companion," she asked.

"Literally," I overexplained, "it means 'the one with whom you share your bread.' In other words, a friend."

That floored her. She looked at me in astonishment, eyebrows raised, and said, "The devil has a friend?"

"Hmmm..." I replied. "Well, they were friends in heaven. I guess they're stuck with each other now, whether they're friends or not."

But it's a very good question that my daughter raised. Does the fallen archangel Satan have any real friends in Paradise Lost? True friendship entails trust, but Milton implies that Satan distrusts his 'companions,' as, for example, at the conclusion of the hellish assembly in Book 2, when Satan announces that he will attempt the dangerous crossing of the chaotic abyss to seek a way out of hell, for Satan tells the other high demons:
... intermit no watch
Against a wakeful Foe, while I abroad
Through all the Coasts of dark destruction seek
Deliverance for us all: this enterprize
None shall partake with me. Thus saying rose
The Monarch, and prevented all reply,
Prudent, least from his resolution rais'd
Others among the chief might offer now
(Certain to be refus'd) what erst they fear'd;
And so refus'd might in opinion stand
His Rivals, winning cheap the high repute
Which he through hazard huge must earn. (PL 2.462-473)
Satan will brook no rivals and so forecloses the possibility of one arising by preventing any reply to his words.

Satan has, through pride and ambition warred "in Heav'n against Heav'ns matchless King" (PL 4.41) and suffers his own legitimation crisis in the contradictions arising through his attempt to set himself up as monarch. Satan may tell his friend Beelzebub:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n. (PL 1.261-263)

But he doesn't intend for Beelzebub to reign, no more than he intends this for their "faithful friends" (PL 1.264). The fallen angels may share the bitter fruits of their rebellion (PL 10.565-566), but they don't share themselves.

That would be imprudent.


At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of Jerry Garcia singing, "a friend of the devil is a friend of mine," but as I read this it suddenly seems that Mr. Garcia is getting off easy in terms of friendship obligations to the devil's friends if in fact the devil has no friends. Perhaps that's why he took back that $20 dollar bill...

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

A great question from your daughter!

I read the beginning of Paradise Lost to my seven year old the other night. She asked me, as she sometimes does, to read her to sleep. When she does that, I usually just read her a bit of whatever I'm reading, and I'm rereading Paradise Lost at the moment. Maybe it's a mistake, since I don't want her to think of Milton (or any of my reading) as a soporific, but anyway, she listened closely enough to pick out her own name and comment on it.

By the way, this post is going to have me singing "American Pie" all night (some say that line was a reference to the Jerry Garcia song, apparently).

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

James, someday, we'll just have to see how easy Jerry Garcia got off.

My impression from the stories on topics like this one is that the devil always gets his twenty dollars back -- and one's soul, too.

Kate Marie, I had no idea what Don McLean was referring to, but your suggestion makes sense.

Ian, thanks for the Lewis reference. I feel an article brewing...

And I do need to read that "Beelzy" story.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:04 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

Actually, Beelzebub is just another name for Satan. At least, in the Bible where the term is introduced. I don't know about later traditions or anything.

Milton is one heckuva tough author for a 9 yr old.

At 5:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, you're amazing. Sometimes, I think that you must be like one of the antediluvian figures with their expanded lifespans. How else can you have learned so much?

Unless through wizardry...

Thanks for all of the references. I now lack all excuse for not reading "Thus I Refute Beelzy."

Saur, I agree that the New Testament seems to identify Beelzebub with Satan. Milton, interestingly, doesn't limit his sources to solely canonical ones. Despite his Puritanism, he's his own man and draws on whatever he sees fit to compose his poem -- even while claiming divine inspiration! I'm really curious as to how he conceives divine inspiration to work ... at least in his own case.

Anyway, yes, Milton is tough for a nine-year-old.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:03 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

I'm glad to count the Gypsy Scholar among my own companions. Thanks for sharing yourself.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But just keep in mind, Jessica, that I'm a bit of an outlaw.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ian, thanks for the most recent comment and all of its information. You truly are amazing.

As you are all well aware, I'm having Blogspot problems and can do nothing more than wait impatiently for Blogger to rectify them.

So ... until then...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

and a reprobate... I haven't forgotten.


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