Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Paradise Lost, Book II

Whew… when is the last time I was shocked by an image? Satan and the legions have decided that rather than immediately wage another battle against Heaven, they will see if they can find the rumored world of a new race called Man in order to institute a new depravity called Marketing. Satan is the only one with large enough cajónes to set about finding a way out of hell and to the new world. He arrives at the Gates of Hell.

Before the Gates there sat

On either side a formidable shape;

The one seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair,650

But ended foul in many a scaly fould

Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d

With mortal sting: about her middle round

A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d

With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung655

A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,

If aught disturb’d thir noyse, into her woomb,

And kennel there, yet there still bark’d and howl’d

Within unseen.

That’s way more disturbing than vagina dentata. I mean, it’s one thing to have teeth, but it’s a whole different order of magnitude to have Cerberian hounds charging out of the nether orifice. Later she reveals that the hounds chew on her bowels when they’ve withdrawn into her womb.

Onward with the freak show. Satan asks her who the hell she is and she gives her reply:

Hast thou forgot me then, and do I seem

Now in thine eye so foul, once deemd so fair

In Heav’n, when at th’ Assembly, and in sight

Of all the Seraphim with thee combin’d750

In bold conspiracy against Heav’ns King,

All on a sudden miserable pain

Surprisd thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzie swumm

In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast

Threw forth, till on the left side op’ning wide,755

Likest to thee in shape and count’nance bright,

Then shining Heav’nly fair, a Goddess arm’d

Out of thy head I sprung; amazement seis’d

All th’ Host of Heav’n back they recoild affraid

At first, and call’d me Sin, and for a Sign760

Portentous held me; but familiar grown,

I pleas’d, and with attractive graces won

The most averse, thee chiefly, who full oft

Thy self in me thy perfect image viewing

Becam’st enamour’d, and such joy thou took’st765

With me in secret, that my womb conceiv’d

A growing burden. Mean while Warr arose,

And fields were fought in Heav’n; wherein remaind

(For what could else) to our Almighty Foe

Cleer Victory, to our part loss and rout770

Through all the Empyrean: down they fell

Driv’n headlong from the Pitch of Heaven, down

Into this Deep, and in the general fall

I also; at which time this powerful Key

Into my hand was giv’n, with charge to keep755

These Gates for ever shut, which none can pass

Without my op’ning. Pensive here I sat

Alone, but long I sat not, till my womb

Pregnant by thee, and now excessive grown

Prodigious motion felt and rueful throes.780

At last this odious offspring whom thou seest

Thine own begotten, breaking violent way

Tore through my entrails, that with fear and pain

Distorted, all my nether shape thus grew

Transform’d: but he my inbred enemie785

Forth issu’d, brandishing his fatal Dart

Made to destroy: I fled, and cry’d out Death;

Hell trembl’d at the hideous Name, and sigh’d

From all her Caves, and back resounded Death.

I fled, but he pursu’d (though more, it seems,790

Inflam’d with lust then rage) and swifter far,

Mee overtook his mother all dismaid,

And in embraces forcible and foule

Ingendring with me, of that rape begot

These yelling Monsters that with ceasless cry795

Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv’d

And hourly born, with sorrow infinite

To me, for when they list into the womb

That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw

My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth800

A fresh with conscious terrours vex me round,

That rest or intermission none I find.

Before mine eyes in opposition sits

Grim Death my Son and foe, who sets them on,

And me his Parent would full soon devour805

For want of other prey, but that he knows

His end with mine involvd; and knows that I

Should prove a bitter Morsel, and his bane,

Whenever that shall be; so Fate pronounc’d.

Incest and more incest. Vaginal hounds. Matricidal longing. Ai-yai-yai!

Of course Milton being Milton, he’s drawing on ancient sources. The image of Sin is developed from the metamorphosis of Scylla in Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book XIV), and her birth from Satan’s head takes as model Athena’s birth from Zeus’s head (Hesiod, Theogony 901). There’s an inversion here, however, as Athena was a goddess of wisdom, and Zeus the Almighty, and frequently used as a stand-in for Jehova by Christian writers mining classical materials.

While still recovering, I’ve got a voice back and for the moment it doesn’t hurt to talk. I read the last quarter of Book II out loud. Milton’s lines are vigorous and fearsome—this is great read-out-loud material. There is no doubt that I’m reading one of the most powerful works of poetry in the English language.

[Text and references were found at The Milton Reading Room.]

Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell


  1. No doubt about it, one of the powerful works of poetry in the English language. A little too overwrought for my complete enjoying, epics poems deserve years of study for one is suitably rewarded. The epic poem which fascinates me most is Spencer's 'Fairie Queene'. Its a gift if one can gain spiritual in sight from profound works of literature, but what a fantastic Blake to accompany your great quote and commentary. Browne's efforts at verse are pretty feeble doggerel compared to Milton. His copy of 'Paradise Lost' is dated 1674 but his son Edward also has a copy.

  2. I started reading Faerie Queene in my early 20s and probably didn't get past the halfway mark, and maybe not that far. Some 15 years later I'm planning on plunging in again this next year. Chaucer is up next for me. After Canterbury I'll either start Spenser (I want to read more than just the Faerie Queene) or possibly re-read Dante, then come back to Spenser.

    Out of curiosity, what is it that fascinates you about Faerie Queene? Most of the opinions I've heard on it are relatively negative, mostly due to a distaste for allegory -- Lewis and Bloom, on the other hand, are admirers, and where they agree, I'm ready to trust.

  3. The Fairie Queene is a great Christian allegory with esoteric symbolism thrown in for good measure. I hope to post on George and the Red Cross, Rosy-Cross - Rosicrucian connection soon. Its language is also challenging but quaint and musical in its rhymes.


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