Friday, January 22, 2010

John Milton's Chaos: "Chance governs all . . ."

Satan in the Abyss
(Image from History of Art)

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 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 . . . . 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]
I 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.

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 . . ."

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At 9:33 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

I have a copy of "Paradise Lost" around here somewhere. I can see that I am going to have to read it to stay up to par in class!
Please forgive the quotes around the title, but I can't find the way to put it in italics on this new laptop.

(perhaps I'll even move from the back of the class!)

At 9:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Milton is difficult, an all-around genius who worked hard at learning and strove for excellence. I'm hardly a teacher to receive instruction from, more of a fellow discussant . . .

So, yes, do read Milton!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:56 PM, Anonymous seth said...

frosty parafragilism

who say me
must melt in chaos?
who say freeze in choice?
snake eyes and fangs
favor chance and bangs
but what the hell?
pair a' dice lost in Providence

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Seth, for the interesting lyric, but when you wrote "who say me," did you mean "who say we"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:16 AM, Anonymous seth said...

nosism fuss
o'er the royal plus
for elohim's sake
forsake me

At 6:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, the royal we it is . . . even if lacking in Hebrew.

Jeffery Hodges

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