Death is not – as Wallace Stevens supposes – the mother of beauty. In fact, Death is the father of the hell hounds. What? Yes, I’m serious. I’ve read Book II of Paradise Lost, and I know these things.
Book II seems to be divided into two parts, both of which are fascinating. From its beginning until around line 500, Satan and the other angels with whom he has been expelled from heaven hold a meeting, at which they follow Robert’s Rules of Order. WHAT?? you ask. Once again, I’m serious, although perhaps I’m exaggerating just a little bit. Robert’s Rules of Order didn’t exist in their current form in 1667, for one thing. In the margin of the first page of Book II, I jotted a note that says, “The rebel angels are very organized – they stop just short of following Robert’s Rules of Order.” I intended that comment as a joke (I have a longstanding, and possibly bad, habit of jotting snarky and sarcastic comments in the margins of books in hope that these will help me make my students laugh in class. I have no intention of ever teaching Paradise Lost, but the habit stands), but then a footnote to line 160 explains that the angel Belial goes out of his way to avoid saying the name of Moloch, who spoke before him, because “Naming a previous speaker is prohibited by Parliamentary rules of debate” (55). I laughed out loud at that note and did a little research to refresh my memory about Robert’s Rules, which were developed in the mid-19th century by combining elements of U.S. House of Representatives procedure with elements of British Parliamentary protocol. So yes, these angels come very, very close to following Robert’s Rules of Order, and I find this hilarious.
All kidding aside, though, the fact that the angels follow parliamentary procedures does a lot to keep politics at the forefront of my mind – and that’s a good thing. On this read-through of Book II, I was reminded over and over again that Milton’s motivation in writing Paradise Lost was more political than religious. Milton was obsessed with freedom and democracy and what he saw as the illegitimate power of monarchs, and he was a rare bird back in the 16th century: a Puritan who did not believe in predestination. He was all about stripping churches bare of icons and images, about translating the Bible into vernacular languages, about encouraging individuals to have private relationships with God without using a priest or other religious figure as an interlocutor. The fact that Milton comes off as stern to us today has at least as much to do with his subject matter as with his true nature: modern readers are used to reading novels, plays, and other literature about ordinary people and secular settings, and a 400-page epic poem about original sin can be a tough sell to a modern reader. But individual freedom was at the top of Milton’s priority list back in the mid-1600’s – he even advocated the no-fault divorce several centuries before British and American courts began to grant such divorces as a matter of course. He loathed power concentrated in the hands of individuals. Every time he begins one of his long crazy similes by saying “As a monarch…,” I know something bad is about to happen. King-related similes are the 17th-century equivalent of the Jaws music.
Milton’s hell, in fact, is a democracy. In the first half of Book II, the angels debate the question of whether they should go to war to regain their status in heaven. The issue is debated carefully and thoroughly, and then the angels take a vote. It’s almost – well, it’s almost cute. And trust me: “cute” is not a word I thought would ever use about Paradise Lost.
In addition to narrating this debate and vote, the first half of Book II is a good chance to get to know some of the angels who rebelled with Satan against God. Book I is largely Satan’s one-man show, but in Book II, the other angels get a chance to speak their minds. Moloch, the first debater, advocates going to war again against God. Moloch clearly suffers from wounded pride and is horribly humiliated at being relegated to hell (“… this dark opprobrious den of shame, / the prison of his tyranny who reigns” [II.58-59]). He makes reference to the idea that upward motion is “natural” for angels, and by forcing them to descend into hell, God has overturned the natural order of the angelic world. I believe this is a reference to an ancient Greek idea that mortal beings’ natural movement is down, since we are affected by gravity, whereas supernatural and spiritual beings’ natural movement is up. Moloch also hopes to inspire his fellow angels to fight by pointing out that they have already lost everything, and his speech also suggests something rather remarkable – that the angels aren’t really sure if they are immortal or not: “Or if our substance be indeed divine, / And cannot cease to be, we are at worst / On this side nothing” (II. 99-101). Moloch seems mostly sure that he and the other angels cannot die, but he acknowledges a bit of skepticism in this area and seems to suggest that he would rather die than live in hell. Finally, of course, Moloch relies on the age-old carrot of revenge, hoping to rouse the angels’ will to fight by the thought of defeating God decisively.
The next speaker is Belial, who apparently is the most beautiful of all of the rebel angels. Belial plays Mark Antony to Moloch’s Brutus, stating several times that he would be in favor of outright war if certain qualifications were met. Slowly, though – like Antony – Belial (who has beauty and brains) turns Moloch’s argument on its head. He emphasizes the fact that heaven is guarded by armed soldiers, including snipers (It is? You ask. Hey, I’m just the messenger here); for this reason, the angels will likely not get close enough to heaven to initiate a war against God. He also mentions that while heaven itself can be harmed, God cannot. Belial seems sure of his theology here: God wears an immunity necklace. So while the angels could inflict damage on heaven – and presumably on some of the other angels – they would never be able to damage God, rendering moot Moloch’s point about revenge. Belial also seems unsure about whether he and the other angels are mortal or not, and he seems to fear death: “Sad cure, for who would lose / Though full of pain, this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through eternity” (II.146-8). In other words, Belial fears what Philip Larkin calls “the anaesthetic from which none come round.” Belial also derides Moloch’s statement that their lives can’t possibly get worse. On the contrary, says Belial, life can always be worse. Hell’s ceiling could collapse on us, for example – that would be worse:
Or when we lay
Chained on the burning lake? That sure was worse.
What if the breath that kindled those grim fires
Awaked should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the flames? Or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us? What if all
Her stores were opened, and this firmament
Of Hell should spout her cataracts of fire
Impendent horrors, threat’ning hideous fall
One day upon our heads; while we perhaps
Designing or exhorting glorious war,
Caught in a fiery tempest shall be hurled
Each on his rock transfixed, the sport and prey
Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk
Under yon boiling ocean, wrapped in chains;
There to converse with everlasting groans,
Unrespited, unpitied, unreprieved,
Ages of hopeless end. This would be worse. (II.168-186)
You know Milton means business when he includes not one but two four-word sentences in less than twenty lines of iambic pentameter. Apparently there are some ideas here that he wants to emphasize
Belial makes one more point that strikes me as damn good, if a little obvious: it is impossible to win against an omnipotent, omniscient enemy. This makes sense, right? An omniscient enemy will always know his foe’s battle plans, will crack every code, will have his snipers stationed in all the right vantage points. By this point, Belial has more or less voided any interest Moloch may have aroused in the other angels for a bloody war. And he did it without ever once violating British parliamentary procedures, in spite of the fact that these procedures did not even exist on the day right after God created the heavens and the earth – which is, as far as I can tell, when this epic takes place. Belial is a debating, peace-loving badass – that’s what he is.
The third speaker is Mammon, whose name means “wealth.” Mammon also argues against going to war, but he finds Belial’s stance a bit too cowardly. Mammon (like Huck Finn many millennia later) brings up the point that heaven is awfully boring. There will be nothing to do there, and, besides, they will have to suck up to God.
Suppose he should relent
And publish grace to all, on promise made
Of new subjection; with what eyes could we
Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed , to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forced hallelujahs…” (II.237-241)
Mammon follows this distasteful idea up with a riff on freedom that echoes any number of phrases from Satan’s “Tis better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” speech in Part I. We can adapt to hell, Mammon says, and he challenges the angels to
Our own good from our selves, and from our own
Live to our own selves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear
Then most conspicuous, when great thinks of small,
Useful of hurtful, prosperous of adverse
We can create, and in what place soe’er
Thrive under evil, and work ease out of pain
Through labor and endurance. (II.253-262)
About forty years before these lines were written, a few hundred of Milton’s fellow English Puritans settled in North America, founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and set out to create a theocratic utopia governed by democratic town meetings. Say what you like about the Puritans – I’m aware that they weren’t the most cuddly bunch, and they certainly could have used the services of a good brand consultant – but they were brave, and when they justified the back-breaking labor they did to keep their colony operating, they did so in language not too different from Milton’s lines above.
The last speaker is Beelzebub, who has a chiseled physique. Beelzebub echoes many of Belial and Mammon’s arguments, emphasizing that war against God is futile and that, even in the unlikely event that God might let them back into heaven, God would never treat the rebels as well as he treated his other more loyal angels. Be prepared to spend eternity as second-class citizens, Beelzebub warns. Beelzebub also makes the point that even if they don’t go to war, the angels are kidding themselves to think they’ll ever be free in hell – he suggests that it’s only a matter of time before God decides to extend his empire to include hell – and the angels will be forced to be servile to God once again.
Beelzebub, however, has a plan. Back in heaven, he heard a rumor that God had created a new kind of being – Man. Man is less powerful than angels, but more beloved by God, according to Beelzebub, and Beelzebub suggests that
Some advantageous act may be achieved
By sudden onset, either with Hell fire
To waste his whole creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive as we were driven,
The puny habitants, or if not drive,
Seduce them to our party, that their God
May prove their foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works” (II.363-370)
You see where this is headed, right? Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Alexander and the lure of the east, Columbus and the lure of the west, Bill Clinton and the lure of Monica Lewinsky. This is the moment when the idea of original sin was first developed. It’s too bad no one thought to hang up a plaque.
I’m going to stop here for a little while. Milton’s fascinating, but he’s exhausting, and even though I’ve done my best to clarify his language, Book II is full of all kinds of linguistic booby traps, and I’m exhausted.
I’ll be back soon, though. We’re not even halfway through Book II yet. I need to tell you all about Sin and Death and what happens when they have sex.
(To Be Continued)